Mush gets a bad rap, but it’s a foundational food group.

By Margaret Eby
Updated February 18, 2020
Advertisement
Greg DuPree

In my head, foods are often categorized not by cuisines, or technique, or even by ingredient, but by mood. There is a category of food that I sometimes crave that is just “vehicles for an enormous quantity of ketchup.” There’s one that is “easy enough to make after happy hour drinks,” and another that is “requires all day and is therefore an excuse to sit inside and watch TV as my dish simmers.” But increasingly, when I think about what I want for dinner, or what I should make to portion out for work lunches, the answer is mush. 

When people refer to food as “mush,” it is usually an insult. Food that has no textural contrast is best avoided in most fine dining contexts. Creamy soups get a scattering of toasted croutons, and very creamy dishes are usually balanced with something crunchier, like toasted nuts. The category that most readily comes to mind when meditating on mush is probably baby food, or meals for people who are unable to use their teeth and/or swallowing muscles. It’s certainly not a category of cuisine you’d embrace voluntarily, right? A big plate of mush isn’t something that will get a lot of likes on Instagram. If you break out a container full of mush for lunch, no one is going to ask for your recipe. But mush is an essential building block of all cuisines, and it deserves respect. The best things in life are mush, if you ask me. 

Todd Porter & Diane Cu

Consider the beloved dishes that fall squarely into the “mush” category. Aside from the eponymous dish, popular in the Midwest and parts of the Southeast, which is literally cornmeal mush eaten with syrup, mush is a crucial component of many dishes. Guacamole is a kind of mush, and so is hummus. Grits, mashed potatoes, and congee are mush. Bean dip is mush. In fact, most dips are mush, or at least mostly mush with a crispy breadcrumb topping. Dal is often mush. Casseroles and hot dishes are largely mush, or at least, mushy. To be clear, here I am celebrating intentional mushes, like the slowly softening cookies in an icebox cake. Things that are supposed to be crunchy but are instead mushy, and vice versa, do not belong in the mush pantheon. 

When I started cooking school in 2018, the first lesson I remember, after knife safety and a primer on the brigade system, is that classic French cuisine is, essentially, mush. My chef-instructor impressed upon us that French food, properly prepared, should mostly be eaten without much use of your teeth. There are exceptions, of course—no one wants a mushy steak, or a pudding-like baguette—but so many elements of classic French cooking are mushes. A puree is an elegant mush, and a well executed sauce, particularly when nicely thickened, is certainly mush-adjacent. Braises nothing more than a process of reducing meat to unctuous, tender mush. 

Nothing about that feels bad to me. Mushes are the necessary counterpoint to more texturally challenging food, which is why they’re so often paired together: a crusty loaf of bread and pate go together as well as chips and dip. Crunchy breadcrumbs make macaroni and cheese’s mushiness just that much more pleasing. 

Kay Chun

But aside from their use as a structural block of cooking, mushes are a relief. Mush is what I always end up back to when I need to rebuild my strength, and when I need a reminder to withdraw, a bit, from my usual mode of being over-scheduled, and concentrate on my own space, and my own head. Maybe it’s because it harkens back to the celebrated mushes of childhood, or maybe it’s because mush is a texture that is, by its very nature, forgiving.

When I’m making myself a bowl of porridge with a runny egg on top, or a plate of eggplant casserole, it is a dish that is purely sustaining and delicious, and not showy in the least. Like brown foods and big sprawling, ugly dishes, mushes are the anti-Instagram dish—difficult to style, off-putting to photograph, devoid of the colors that make for a nice addition to the grid. Sure, a dinner that’s a mush on top of a mush—bean dip folded into mashed potatoes, as I made from a stash of Super Bowl leftovers earlier this month—can turn out to be just various unappealing shades of yellow and beige. But it doesn’t matter at all. Mush doesn’t have to be a dish I cook for a dinner party. The mush is for me. The mush can be for you, too, if you let it.