Indian Meal

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (3) | Start of Chapter

But the Indian meal! Who shall attempt a description of this frightful formidable?

When it first landed, the rich, who had no occasion for using it, hailed it with joy, and some actually condescended to say, “They believed they could eat it themselves.”

But the poor, who had not yet slid down the precipice so far as to feel that they were actually dying, could be heard on the streets, and in the market-place, interrogate one another, “And have ye seen the yaller Indian, God save us awl? By dad and ‘Peel’s brimstone’ has come over again, to scrape the maw of every divil on us.”

The reader must be content to take the famine just as I saw it; and though the language may be sometimes startling, to refine it by any substitution or seasoning of my own invention would be weakening its force, and oftentimes frittering away the truth.

In justice it should be said that they often use the word devil in a quite different meaning from what others do, always applying it to a poor neglected creature, however deserving he may be, as well as to those who are wicked.

Thus they would often say, “The breath is cowld in the poor divil’s body, he’ll no more feel the hunger, God bless him!”

And the yaller Indian was called by all manner of epithets, and went through all manner of ordeals but the right one.

The Indian meal by some was stirred in cold water with a stick, then put quite dry upon a griddle, it consequently crumbled apart, there was no turning it; and one desponding woman came to me, saying, “That the last bit of turf had died on her, and not a ha’porth of the yaller Indian would stop with its comrade.”

Others made what they call “stirabout;” this was done, too, by first steeping in cold water, then pouring it into a pot, and immediately after swelling, it became so thick that it could not be stirred, neither would it cook in the least.

The “stirabout” then became a “stand-about,” and the effect of eating this was all but favorable to those who had seldom taken farinaceous food.

They were actually afraid to take it in many cases, the government meal in particular, fearing that the “Inglish intinded to kill them” with the “tarin and scrapin;” but when hunger had progressed a little, these fears subsided, and they cared neither what they ate, or who sent it to them.

Had the women of the higher classes known how to prepare these articles in a proper manner, much money might have been saved, and many lives rescued, which are now lost.

When the first clamor had a little subsided, there followed the recipes for cooking Indian meal. One of these, highly celebrated for a while, was from Italy, and called “Polentia;” whether spelt correctly the learned must decide; but this same Polentia would do for gentlemen and ladies too. The recipe cannot precisely be given; but enough to know that it was turned and overturned—covered and uncovered—boiled and steamed in a pot—and then came out genteelly, in a becoming shape, according to the form of the pot used. Now this was often on the tables of the gentry, for the recipe and meal were from Italy; the poor would only hear of this at a distance—the cooking they could never attain.

Next came American recipes: these, with all due credence, were accepted as the one thing needful, for they possessed these redeeming qualities:—first, they were from America, the land which they loved, for many of their “kin” were there; next, that though they thought that nobody but negroes ate it—yet negroes lived on that food; and “sure the Americans wouldn’t hurt em.”

These recipes were prepared in due form, and made up with suets, fats, sweets, and spices, so that the Laird John Russell himself could “ate em.”

A great and grand meeting of lords and nobility was held, called by the poor, the “yaller Indin maitin;” and a bona fide sanction put on to the Indian meal cake.

Here again was a difficulty—the meal was for the hungry; Where could they procure spices, sweets, and fats for such delicacies?—and as they thought that these were necessary to make it safe to eat, then their fears were awakened anew.

But a few weeks adjusted all these difficulties, for when the number of the slain had increased in every parish, all murmuring at the quality of the food ceased—they suffered in uncomplaining silence.