Tess found a passage in Salt in My Porridge in which Angus MacVicar is describing the boyhood of his father, growing up in North Uist in the late 19th century: 'Indian meal porridge was the staple diet.' This mention set me off on an exploration of just what 'Indian meal porridge' would mean here.
The literal meaning is easy; 'Indian meal' was maize, or what is called corn in the US. Merriam Webster dates the phrase to 1621, and the OED to 1635, the first generation of settlement in New England. In the US the term 'Indian corn' now refers only to the multi-coloured, hard corncobs used for meal, feed, or decoration (my mother used them as centrepieces for the table). Porridge made form this meal took on various names in the US, such as mush. But the term 'Indian Meal' persisted in Britain.
What puzzled me was not its literal meaning, but what it means here and meant in the 19th century. I ws surprised to find it as a staple in the Hebrides, where it isn't grown, and where I would have expected oats. MacVicar's point, I think, is in an implied contrast: they had Indian meal, not even oats. He continues,
'Fruit and vegetables were almost unknown. A little kale might be grown for winter broth, and at Christmas and New Year a loaf of bread and a few apples might be brought as a treat for the young ones.' (p. 25)
So Indian corn is a sign of poverty. A bit of lazy research following up leads from Google took me to a series of cookbooks and newspaper accounts, where 'Indian meal' is always associated with poverty, with not having anything better. Indian meal porridge was the standard form of relief given in the Irish Famine in the 1840s. A letter from 'A Pauper' to the Cork Examiner on 8 October 1846, at the height of the Famine, says,
'SIR,-- On yesterday morning the 7th instant, on my way to the Union-house in company with my three destitute children, so as to receive some relief in getting some Indian Meal porridge, to our great mortification the two sides of the road were lined with police and infantry-- muskets, with screwed bayonets and knapsacks filled with powder and ball, ready prepared to slaughter us, hungry victims.'
[This is via a site of famine-related articles at Vassar].
Indian meal was also what was eaten in the Lancashire 'Cotton Famine', when the Northern blockade of Southern cotton during the US Civil War led to mills being closed and widespread distitution throughout Lancashire. Edwin Waugh, in his 'Home Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine' (1867), quotes a letter from John Whittaker to the Times (1862).
'There have been families that have been so reduced that the only food they have had has been a porridge made of Indian meal. They could not afford oatmeal, and even of their Indian meal porridge they could only afford to have two meals a day'.
How did they make it? The only recipe I have found so far is in a book by Francis Underwood, 'Cooking for Working Men's Wives' . Wheatmeal porridge is the first recipe in the book (and their method is quite good). Indian meal is used only in a recipe 'For indigestion'.
How did the inoffensive Zea mays, the staple diet of hundreds of millions of people, loved as mammaliga and polenta and sadza and mush, get such bad associations? Perhaps maize meal is so bland (even more bland than the Irish potatoes or the Lancashire oatmeal) that it really does need something else to make it appetising, butter, sugar, evaporated milk, spices, chillies, or even, in Mexico, cocoa. Perhaps in famine conditions it was diluted (as maize can be) to the point where it was a thin gruel. Perhaps the key is that in Britain and Ireland, Indian meal is always an import from the US, and is always presented as a cheap alternative to something else more familiar and palatable. It could be that in Britain, maize meal has never really recovered from these associations, and has never had the chance to be associated with warmth, home, and a full stomach, which is what porridge means.