TT: The Great Corn-Flour Mystery

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and help me decide just how important certain title elements are to readers.  Then come back and join me and Alan as, for the very first time, we fail to solve a linguistic mystery!

JANE: I enjoyed reading your “wot i red on my hols” column.  There’s something nice about reading about someone else’s summer vacation when, outside my window, the mourning doves are gently pecking at the skim of ice on the bird bath.

A Bowl of Corn-flour?

A Bowl of Corn-flour?

However, as usual, I find myself needing a translation from your English to my English.

You mentioned that when you and Robin met your friends at the place you were renting, you did a baggies to decide who got what room.  What the heck is a “baggies”?

ALAN: “Bags” or “baggies” is a children’s game, sort of. If a group of children all want some desirable object, the first person to say “Bags I have …” gets the object. Having “bagged” the object, it is a sacred rule that nobody else can have it. Nothing overrides the overwhelming power of bagging the object. The action of bagging is known as a baggies. And as I said in the article, you can’t break a baggies.

JANE: I’d heard the phrase “bags I have” – possibly in a Narnia novel – but
never the word “baggies.”

ALAN: It might be a regional variation – certainly it was common in the North of England on both sides of the Pennines when I was a child.

JANE: And you are much younger than C.S. Lewis.  It’s likely the term would evolve over time.

When you were talking about the incredibly complicated shower, you mentioned that the instructions were written on a piece of A4 paper.  What’s A4 paper?  Is it paper specially coated for use under water?

ALAN: No, not quite. It’s the standard paper size used for printing reports and letters and articles etc. For various mathematical reasons that I won’t bore you with, but which have to do with easy halving and doubling, it measures 210 by 297 millimetres (8.3 in × 11.7 in). It’s used by every country in the world except North America.  (No, I’m not exaggerating and I’m not poking fun, I’m simply stating a fact.) If you lived outside of America, you’d print your manuscripts on A4 paper.

JANE: Seriously?  Wow.  That has some interesting ramifications for everything from computer printers to notebooks.  Our standard size is 8.5 inches by 11 inches.  Your paper would be too tall!

ALAN: I have an amusing story about A4 paper.  Microsoft used to supply their training manuals printed on American letter stationery and bound in three ring binders. Obviously they wanted students to be able to incorporate sheets of paper with their own notes into the material. It’s a laudable idea, but utterly impractical outside of the USA.

Once we had a visiting Microsoftie over from America. I pointed out to him that American letter stationery simply doesn’t exist here (no matter how hard you try, you just can’t buy it). Furthermore, you can’t buy three-ring hole punches either, because we don’t use three-ring binders at all. All our loose leaf binders are two-hole binders designed for A4 stationery. As a result of this, it is actually completely impossible for New Zealand students to bind their own notes into the manuals. The Microsoftie looked at me incredulously. “You’re kidding me, right?” he said.

Even when I showed him a two-ring binder and a sheet of A4 paper, he still refused to believe that I was telling him the truth. But I was…

JANE: Fascinating. I love three ring binders… I have two on my desk right now!   They also fit my bookshelves perfectly.  If I moved to New Zealand, I guess I’d have to adjust my shelves, too.  How horribly inconvenient!

ALAN: Sometimes the world is an inconvenient place.

JANE: While we’re talking about elements of your English that I can’t understand, I was reading an Agatha Christie short story last night that mentioned something called “corn-flour.” It appeared to be a beverage of some sort. Do you know what this is? I could check a dictionary, I suppose, but your definitions are usually more complete.

ALAN: I’ve no idea what sort of context made it appear to be a beverage. Corn flour is exactly what the name implies, it’s flour milled from corn. It tends to be a bit coarse and slightly yellow in colour. I cook with it a lot – I use it for thickening sauces and for coating meat and fish with seasoned flour. It probably has baking uses as well, but I don’t do baking so I’m not sure about that. Can you quote the context where you found it? I’m very puzzled by the beverage implication.

JANE: What you mention using sounds very much like what we call “corn meal.”  We also have “corn starch,” which is white, very finely ground.  Corn starch is what I’d use as a thickener for gravies etc.  Corn meal can be baked with – that’s the main ingredient in corn bread.

I wondered if Dame Agatha might be have been referring to something like what we call corn meal mush or even grits, both of which would be served in a bowl. However, both are thick enough that the verb “drink” which is used several times seems odd to me.

Let me give a few quotations and see if they help.

ALAN: Okay – you’ve got me intrigued now.

JANE: The story in question is The Tuesday Night Club and the title story of the collections with almost the same name (add “Murders”).  My copy doesn’t give a more precise date for it.

Here are a few lines: “Mr. Jones had gone down to the kitchen and demanded a bowl of corn-flour for his wife, who had complained of not feeling well.”

Later: “Miss Clark… told us that the whole of the bowl of corn-flour was drunk not by Mrs. Jones but by her.”

Later: “it is nicely made, too, no lumps… Very few girls nowadays seem to be able to make a bowl of corn-flour nicely.”

Later: “You drink up the bowl of corn-flour.”

So, I toss this puzzle into your lap. I certainly don’t think it’s sloppy writing on Dame Agatha’s part. Especially where food plays a role in a story, she’s very careful.

ALAN: This one is just weird. You’re right, Christie is obviously talking about a drink, but I’ve never heard of corn-flour being used this way, and I can’t find anything in any of my cookery books. I went googling and discovered that there’s a young girl in England who has a rare liver disease. She has to drink a corn-flour mixture every day, for reasons which are not clearly spelled out in the article. The comments on the article amount to “Oh, yuck!”, which suggests that the commentators have never heard of drinking corn-flour before, either.

I also found several references to a Mexican / Aztec drink called Atole which is based on corn-flour, often with other additives such as chocolate. We have some drinking chocolate in the kitchen cupboard and the list of ingredients includes “Starch (Maize and Tapioca)”. I’m guessing here, but perhaps Christie’s reference is to something like this but made by hand rather than from a pre-prepared package? Maybe Agatha Christie’s archaeologist husband had come across it in the field, as it were? But if that is the case, why does she call it corn-flour rather than chocolate (or whatever)?

I truly don’t know…

JANE: How very strange. I have had atole-based drinks, but don’t think Max Mallowan would have come across them since they are very American and his work was solidly Middle Eastern.

My guess is that she is referring to something Victorian, from the reference in the story about how it’s hard to find a cook who can make a good dish of corn-flour anymore.

ALAN: That’s a good guess – perhaps it’s something revolting that the
Victorians did which has gone out of fashion simply because it’s revolting.

JANE: Perhaps our readers can help here. Anyone have an idea?


19 Responses to “TT: The Great Corn-Flour Mystery”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    If you’d like to read the article about my summer vacation that Jane refers to, it’s just been published on the web and you can find it at:


  2. Peter Says:

    Just to further complicate the issue, not all corn flour (or corn meal) is created equal. Venezuelan or Colombian masarepa is a very different thing than Mexican masa harina – you can’t just interchange them when cooking, although they’re both corned corn.

    Corn (as in maize)-based drinks, both alcoholic and non-, can be found throughout Latin America – atole is just one example – and can also be found in Africa, I could certainly see an Englishman coming back from one of the British colonies in Africa with a taste for the stuff.

    The other possibility would be that the “corn-flour” drink in question is using the older sense of “corn” (“ground”).

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Actually, to corn is to form into grains, not to grind. However, the OED says that corn flour is very finely ground. So it’s used in the sense of a flour of maize, rice or other grain. [The term itself was apparently imported from the US along with the product]

      There’s also a cite from an 1892 advert for “The British Corn-flour prepared from Rice”. I suspect that this is what is being referred to: it would be drinkable if made thin enough.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Does make me wonder if the corn-flour drink is something like gruel.

  4. Sally Says:

    Corn flour is just more finely ground corn meal. I’ve used it in recipes (pie dough, for one). It’s not easy to find here, but you can just toss your corn meal in the blender and give it a whirl to get a finer grind.

    I have been told that blue corn atole (a thin corn flour gruel, essentially) is used locally for invalids, sort of like chicken soup (or miso soup if you’re Japanese). Easy to digest.

    • Sally Says:

      After some research: It seems corn-flour could be rice. Colman’s Corn Flour, sold in Britain in the late 1800’s, was made of rice, and was recommended to make gruel (“made with milk in the usual way”) for invalids. A legal case in 1905 ( I think; I can’t find it again) had to do with whether a storekeeper who had sold corn flour made of rice had done so under false pretenses (or something to that effect).

      • Peter Says:

        Recipe for chicha (Venezuelan rice drink, absolutely delicious summer drink):

        1) Pour 5 scoops of rice flour into a bowl. A large coffee scoop or a scoop from powdered iced tea or juice works well.
        2) Add a cup of water to it.
        3) Take a large pot and start to boil about 3 cups of water.
        4) When it boils turn down the flame a bit and add the rice flour and water mixture to the boiling water slowly and stir as each bit of the mixture falls.
        5) As it thickens, add about 3 cups of water and stir.
        6) Add 5 scoops of sugar.
        7) Add vanilla, cinnamon, and/or ground cloves to your taste.
        8) Optionally, add evaporated milk, if you’ve used sugar, or condensed milk if you haven’t.
        9) Stir some more and wait for it to thicken almost to a paste, if it’s too thick and you have trouble stirring, add water.
        10) Let the Chicha cool. If it’s too thick, add regular milk to soften the paste.

        Serve cool, with ice (either crushed like a smoothie or ice cubes), and maybe some extra cinnamon dusted on top.

        I suspect something along these lines is what was being referred to in the book. I love this stuff.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Sally may have hit something here. In English usage, “corn” can be any grain, so rice is not at all out of the picture.

        I like Peter’s recipe!

  5. Jeanette Says:

    My guess is that this is a Corn-Flour Gruel. With the Association of Gruel as a poverty or workhouse type food, from Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist or other later negative connotations Christie may not have wanted to use the word Gruel, when actually it was a common staple of many both before and during the Victorian Era.

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    The wikipedia article on corn meal says that in UK, the word “cornflour” is used for what Americans call corn starch. The article also states that arrowroot is a common substitute for corn starch.

    I remember that in Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma tries to send some arrowroot to someone who was sick (that didn’t turn out well, due to all the complicated personal relationships in that novel). But the Wikipedia article on arrowroot says “In the Victorian era it was used, boiled with a little flavouring added, as an easily digestible food for children and people with dietary restrictions. With today’s greater understanding of its limited nutritional properties, it is no longer used in this way.”

    So, I think the idea of it being an old-fashioned home remedy is right on. It also sounds completely disgusting, depending on how thick the mixture was, and on what flavorings were added.

    Also, to further the discussion of corn in general, we need to bring up the New World practice of treating corn with lime or other alkali. The whole treated grain is known as hominy or parched corn. When dried and ground it becomes the familiar masa of Latin America, and has a very distinctive flavor, completely different from untreated cornmeal. This is why traditional North American cornbread tastes so different from a corn tortilla. Treating the corn makes some of the nutrients more bio-available.

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    From Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861 (from


    1855. INGREDIENTS.–Two teaspoonfuls of arrowroot, 3 tablespoonfuls of cold water, 1/2 pint of boiling water.
    Mode.–Mix the arrowroot smoothly in a basin with the cold water, then pour on it the boiling water, stirring all the time. The water must be boiling at the time it is poured on the mixture, or it will not thicken; if mixed with hot water only, it must be put into a clean saucepan, and boiled until it thickens; but this is more trouble, and quite unnecessary if the water is boiling at first. Put the arrowroot into a tumbler, sweeten it with lump sugar, and flavour it with grated nutmeg or cinnamon, or a piece of lemon-peel, or, when allowed, 3 tablespoonfuls of port or sherry. As arrowroot is in itself flavourless and insipid, it is almost necessary to add the wine to make it palatable. Arrowroot made with milk instead of water is far nicer, but is not so easily digested. It should be mixed in the same manner, with 3 tablespoonfuls of cold water, the boiling milk then poured on it, and well stirred. When made in this manner, no wine should be added, but merely sugar, and a little grated nutmeg or lemon-peel.
    Time.–If obliged to be boiled, 2 minutes. Average cost, 2d. per pint.
    Sufficient to make 1/2 pint of arrowroot.

    MISS NIGHTINGALE says, in her “Notes on Nursing,” that arrowroot is a grand dependence of the nurse. As a vehicle for wine, and as a restorative quickly prepared, it is all very well, but it is nothing but starch and water; flour is both more nutritive and less liable to ferment, and is preferable wherever it can be used.”

  8. Harold Says:

    Unbelievable. I am just now reading Miss Marple The Complete Short Stories, and the first story is The Tuesday Club Murders. When I read about Corn-Flour, I had to go to Google and look it up, and found this site. Learned some more British English from this too. Nice. And thanks.

  9. Jeff Rose-Martland Says:

    MYSTERY SOLVED – it’s a cornflour based milkshake type drink, from the Caribbean.
    It must have been popular throughout the British Empire, as recipes turn up from Haiti to Africa to the UK to Oz. I found your discussion while searching out the reference from a min-20th century Australian novel. Seems that Brits would use it as standard fare for the sick. Which makes sense, since cornflour is basically protein powder.

    Here’s a recipe:

  10. Sarah Says:

    Hi Jane, I too was intrigued by the drinking of cornflour in the Agatha Christie story. From what I can make out cornflour can be taken as a remedy for an upset stomach. As the character in the story wasn’t feeling well I think the cornflour was a home remedy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: