Cornmeal: Perhaps America’s Most Traditional Food

No other food exemplifies America and its plentiful bounty like corn. This is the second in a series of articles that explores the history and culinary uses of this versatile grain.

Thousands of years before Europeans first landed on the shores of the New World, corn had become a staple food of Native Americans. Among the many ways they used corn, one of the most important was grinding it into a coarse meal which was then used to make pone, a flat bread baked in ashes, drinks such as Atole, and Chicha, and a indian-pudding-athick cereal known simply as corn mush or Indian mush. Later, early British Colonists adapted their traditional “hasty pudding” into a corn version called Indian pudding, a dessert still very popular in New England.

When the Europeans first came to America, the Native Americans not only taught them how to grow corn, but how to grind and prepare it as well. Much of today’s Southern cuisine stems from recipes learned from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek, including those that incorporated cornmeal.

metate1Originally the Indians ground their corn by hand using mortars and pestles. Still used today by many culinarians, a mortar is a bowl, usually made of stone, wood, or other hard material, designed to hold whatever substance is to be ground (in this case dried corn). The pestle is a heavy, blunt, club-like stick or another stone used to do the crushing. Mortars and pestles constructed by Native Americans were as varied as the tribes who used them. The Caddo and Cherokee fashioned their mortars out of thick tree trunks and used a heavy stick about the size of a baseball bat to pound the corn. Some of the Southwestern Tribes used large rocks with a natural depression for the matate (mortar) and a smaller stone tool for the mano (pestle).

The first American gristmill (corn mill) on record was built in 1634 in the colony of New Amsterdam (what is now New York), although the Virginia Company records made reference to a water-powered mill being constructed in 1621 in present day North Carolina.

imgresMuch like a community barn raising, the local farmers and villagers usually helped the miller construct these mills to ensure a facility within one day’s travel from their farms in which to have their corn (and sometimes other grains) ground into meal or flour. In lieu of a monetary fee for his services, the miller received a small percentage of the finished product called the “miller’s toll.” This “toll” was then sold or traded by the miller for goods he and his family might need.

The gristmills also became social centers–a gathering place to catch the latest gossip with friends and neighboring farmers as they waited for their corn and grain to be ground. Newspapers would post their latest issue on the side of the mill, and children would play or swim and fish in the millpond.

imgresIn 1850, more than one hundred thousand such mills dotted American’s countryside. But by the century’s end the efficiency of steam had replaced many of the water-powered mills. And by the early 1900s, these small independent stone-grinding mills could no longer compete with the heavy steel and iron rollers of the larger, more efficient gas–and electric–powered mills.

Today, there are less than one thousand gristmills across the country. While many of these have been restored as tourist attractions and for other uses, a few others, such as Jenny Grist Mill, build in 1636 by John Jenney, still operate.

Both Native Americans and European colonists recognized the many uses of cornmeal, as well as the nourishment and energy its provided. Here is a brief description of some of the foods, past and present, made possible by cornmeal.

Indian Muffins: This recipe from The Kentucky Housewife, a 1839 cookbook compiled by Mrs. Lettice Bryan, is one of seventeen bread, cake, and pudding recipes using Indian corn meal, and the closest to today’s classic cornbread.

Beat five eggs light, stir them into a quart of milk with a small handful of flour and a tea-spoonful of salt; then stir in as much fine Indian meal as will make a tolerably thick batter. Having buttered some little scolloped muffin pans, place them in an oven that is moderately heated, put in each a small ladleful of the batter and bake them a nice brown; then take them from the pans, arrange them neatly in a plate, lay on the top of each a slice of firm butter, and eat them warm.

Anadama Bread: As the story goes, a New England sea captain’s wife, Anna, was well known for this sweet, cornmeal and molasses bread. Upon her death he had put on her tombstone, “Anna was a lovely bride, but Anna, damn’er, up and died.” Thus the recipe’s name.

In a bowl, whisk together one-quarter ounce of dry yeast and two cups of warm water; let stand about ten minutes, until frothy. Beat in the three-quarter cup of cornmeal, half cup dark molasses, six tablespoons soft butter and one teaspoon salt. Slowly add five and one-half cups bread flour and continue to beat until a moderately stiff dough forms. Turn dough out onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic.

Place dough into a large bowl, coating all sides with oil. Cover with damp towel and let rise until doubled in size. Punch dough down, divide in half, cover and let rest for ten minutes. Shape into two balls, place each in a buttered round baking pan and flatten. Cover and let rise until almost doubled in size. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. Remove from pans and serve.

cornponeCorn Pone: This traditional Southern dish is, simply speaking, cornbread without the eggs or milk. Also sometimes referred to as “hoecakes” or “Johnnycakes,” corn pones are fried in fat in an iron pan over an open fire, pancake style.

Corn Meal Dumplings: Another traditional Southern dish similar to a hush puppy that has been dropped into boiling chicken or turnip greens liquid to cook, rather than being fried.

Cornmeal Mush: Also called grits in the American South, where they may be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or the evening meal; with just butter and cream, or any number of toppings.

Hush PuppiesHush Puppies: Popular during the Civil War, these fried balls of cornmeal are said to have gotten their name from Southern soldiers who tossed them to their dogs to keep them from barking.

So from Americas Native Tribes to its early colonists and European settlers, corn and cornmeal have had a very important role in shaping the foods we enjoy today, especially the ever popular Southern and Southwestern cuisines. In the next issue of our series on corn, we’ll explore how corn oil has influenced our culinary world.

Make Em: Atole, Creamy Grits Casserole, Maverick Shrimp & Grits, Corn Pone, Hush Puppies, Homesteaders Cornbread

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Corn: The Grain That Built America

Corn–born in the Americas, domesticated in the Americas, first cultivated in the Americas, and most of its uses developed in America. No other food exemplifies this country like corn. In its honor, this is the first in a series of short articles exploring the history and culinary aspects of this versatile native grain.

Publication1The origin of corn was a mystery for many years since nowhere in the world can it be found growing wild. It was only in the 1950s that Noble Prize winner Dr. George Beadle and a team of botanists, geneticists, and archeologists were able to identify a Mexican grass called teosinte as corn’s ancient ancestor. They also determined that it was first domesticated as early as 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley near Puebla, Mexico.

Teosinte-Early CornBy the beginning of the thirteenth century, corn cultivation had spread throughout Mexico and into the U.S. Southwest. And by the end of the century it had migrated through middle and eastern America as far north as southeastern Canada, quickly becoming a major food staple of Native Americans, along with squash, beans, and a few other indigenous plants.

Native American folklore is filled with stories about the origin of corn (known by the Native Americans as mahiz or maize, meaning “that which sustains us”). Most of these colorful stories, once preserved from generation to generation through oral interpretation, have only recently been written down. Here is one such story by a member of the Cherokee nation.

Long, long ago when the Earth was very young, an old woman lived with her grandson in the shadow of a great mountain. The old woman gave her grandson a bow and arrow, and he went out and killed a small bird for them to eat. “You will be a great hunter!” said the grandmother. “We will have a feast.”cherokee symbol for corndawn mother She went into the small storeroom behind their house and brought out some dried corn. With the bird and the corn she made a delicious soup. Everyday the boy would hunt and everyday the grandmother would bring corn to add to the pot. One day the boy looked into the store house and saw that it was empty; but that evening the grandmother brought the corn as usual. The boy was so curious that the next evening he peeked carefully into the storehouse when the grandmother went for the corn. The grandmother rubbed her hand along the side of her body and out popped the corn from her side. The boy was confused and afraid. When the grandmother came out she understood that he had seen her.

“Now I must die,” said the grandmother, “but you must do all I tell you so that when I am gone you still will have food. After I am dead you must clear the land behind the house where the sun shines longest and brightest. Drag my body over the land seven times and bury me in the field.” The next morning she was dead.

The boy did exactly as the grandmother had told him. Everywhere a drop of the grandmother’s blood fell, a small plant grew. The boy kept the land clear around the plants. They grew tall and strong and soon had tassels which reminded the boy of his grandmother’s long hair. The wind rustling the long leaves sounded like her voice. Soon the plants grew heavy with ripe corn, enough to feed the boy and the people.

cornbsAs European settlers began to arrive in America, they soon recognized the proficiency by which Native Americans cultivated their crops and quickly adopted their agricultural techniques. Fields consisted of small mounds of tilled earth about a meter apart in which kernels of corn were planted. Several weeks later, beans and squash were planted between each of the mounds. This resulted in a more sedentary method of farming–cornstalks provided support for the bean vines and squash leaves helped with moisture retention and pest and weed control. Native Americans referred to this as the “three sisters.”

While there are many types of corn, the most common of these are flint, dent, sweet and popcorn.

Indian CornFlint corn, also known as “Indian corn” or “ornamental corn,” is generally multi-colored ranging from white to red to black. The kernels of flint corn have a hard outer layer said to be hard as flint, hence the name. Its low water content is resistant to freezing and therefore well suited for New England and the more northern part of the United States. Flint corn is one of the three kinds of corn cultivated by Native Americans.

Corn_DentDent corn, or “field corn” as called by some, is one of the most widely cultivated crops in the world. It can be either white or yellow and gets its name from the indention on the side of each mature kernel. While often used as livestock feed, it is also used to make processed foods such as starch, oil, and sweetener, or industrial products such as glue, ink, and cosmetics.

sweet-corn-2Sweet corn, sometimes referred to as “table corn,” is so named because it contains more sugar than other types and is grown for human enjoyment. It is rarely used for livestock feed, flour, oil, or industrial purposes.

popcornPopcorn is actually a type of flint corn. It has a moist, starchy center and hard shell that explodes when heated. It is the soft, starchy, white center that you enjoy at home or in movie theaters. Popcorn is the oldest kind of corn, dating back to 3600 BC.

Corn is not only an important part of our diet but our lives as well. Literally everywhere, it is almost impossible to go through our day without being touched in some way by corn–from the eggs we enjoyed for breakfast to the burger and soft drink we had for lunch. Corn is even in the fuel used to operate our automobiles.

Over the next few weeks, we will take a look at some of the foods and food products brought to us by the grain we call corn.