Porridge is somehow famous in literature. The Three Bears minced no words with Goldilocks—she ruined their breakfast by tasting everyone’s porridge, judging it too hot, too cold, or just right. Oliver Twist gets into trouble for asking for more. Mr. Woodhouse of Jane Austen’s Emma believes that a basin of porridge is just the thing (he calls it gruel). And porridge was the thing in the Old World — oats boiled hard and eaten hot.
In the New World, aka America, colonial porridge was quickly replaced with cornmeal mush, a food that indigenous folks had eaten for centuries. (And we’re still eating it today as polenta, grits, and cornbread.) Colonial settlers called it samp, and settlers traveling often took Johnny cake (cornbread) because it was easy to make over a fire.
In my historical novel, The Bereaved, cornmeal, often known as Indian meal, makes an appearance when times get tough.
When she has funds in her purse, Martha, the titular widow, can afford wheat flour and baking soda and makes floury biscuits, with oats for oatmeal/porridge. But when times get tougher, baking powder, flour and oats become luxuries. So cornmeal becomes a staple, and then, almost all they ate.
Here’s what the Lozier family consumed that hard, cold spring of 1859:
I could pay rent or pay the grocer that week. I paid rent and added more water to the soup. I made mush instead of baking cornbread; I fried it on the stovetop, but it stuck without grease and made an awful mess. I made patties from the cooked beans and fried those, too. I was out of sorts and my gut complained, without greens or meat or corn and potatoes.
As Martha and the children finished a meal, any food scraps went back into the soup pot, and it was an ongoing melange, like Strega Nonna’s bottomless spaghetti pot, as Martha added more scraps, more water and salt. They had enough watery soup, but they were hungry.
When Martha’s children discovered there were free meals at a local children’s aid society, Martha grudgingly let her children go, knowing she couldn’t feed them roast beef or turkey, potatoes and peas and carrots, fresh white bread, tall glasses of milk, and a slice of pie with every meal. It took everything in Martha’s heart to say, “I have to do this for the children, let them stay here while I work, and get a good meal, schooling and a warm bed. I’ll save money and bring them home again in a few months.”
The aid society fed and clothed the children, free of charge, and solved all of Martha’s problems—until when, three months later, she found out what happened to her children.
(I can’t tell you more — spoilers!)