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JUDY'S TABLE: SEPTEMBER 2009

Whether you call it corn, maize, mahiz, whatever, it's delicious and versatile.

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Photo by Flickr user vitalacharya. Used with permission.

Corn is a food I have often taken for granted—in other words, not a food that's prompted me to say, "You know, I'm in the mood for corn tonight." But it's ironic. Afterall, this most humble grain forms the basis of so many foods and snacks I love: popcorn, corn bread, corn tortillas, corndogs. You get the idea.

Typically used as an ingredient in main courses or appetizers—soups, guacamole, sauces, salads—corn has always taken second stage to the other elements of the dish: the chowder, the broth, the avocado or tomatoes, the arugula, turkey or ham. When I've eaten corn on the cob as a side dish, somehow the spicy sauce over juicy barbecued ribs or the succulence of fresh Maine lobster made the corn seem so " gee-whiz." Of course, my dousing the corn in butter didn't help matters as this only obscured its natural flavors.

But things have changed. This summer, I volunteered for a produce stand at a street fair, where I had access to low-priced and fresh corn. One evening, when I was low on my own brand of comfort food, I decided to peel the husks from one of cobs, boil it for about 20 minutes, spread a small amount of butter on it and indulge. Much to my surprise, I experienced a meaty sweetness I'd never appreciated in this plant and cereal grain before. Before I knew it, the kernels were gone and the cob looked annihilated. That corn did not stand a chance.

Corn in the Colony

My appreciation for corn was enlivened through my research of early American tavern food, which I did while writing "Washington's Jaunts to Fraunces." For a simple explanation about 18th-century eating, I borrowed Slumps, Grunts and Snickerdoodles: What Colonial America Ate and Why from the library's juvenile-reader section. While author Lila Perl does not delve into tavern eating specifically, I was enlightened by her research into the foods that shaped colonial gastronomy. And it all began with corn.

"But before [the Mayflower passengers] pushed on, along the coast of Cape Cod Bay, they explored the harbor region near the tip of the Cape. There they came by accident upon their first encouraging sign in the New World—a field of stubble where Indian corn had been planted and reaped in the summer just past," says Perl.

"Indian corn" was what the pilgrims called the plant, to distinguish it from the term "corn," which referred to the "important grain or grains of a particular country." According to Perl, when Columbus and crew landed in Cuba in 1492, they discovered a grain called "mahiz," also known as "maiz" in Spain and "maize" to the English.

Citing the journal of William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Perl talks about how the Pilgrims intended to plant their own seeds of "wheat, oats, rye, barley and peas," which had rotted on the journey from England.

Observing the various ways in which the Natives worked with corn, the Pilgrims followed suit. They develop new uses for the grain by drying it and grinding the kernels into what resembled coarse flour, hence cornmeal. Both raw corn and cornmeal would form the basis for colonial recipes: Succotash, Johnnycake (originall called "journeycake," but the New England excluded the "r," therefore becoming "Johnnycake"), Indian pudding and corn oysters. In the South, we see the emergence of hush puppies and spoon bread.

Native Food for Native People

Perl spends a significant part of her book talking about the importance of corn to Native cultures—from the Aztecs of Mexico to the Incas of Peru to the Algonquians in the northeastern part of North America.

Recently, I talked to my friend and colleague Adrienne King who lives in Hualapai (Wahl-uh-pie) Nation, located Peach Springs, Ariz., off of Route 66, not far from the entrance to the Grand Canyon. Adrienne works ethnobotanists, who recently compiled a Hualapai Cookbook, featuring a number of corn dish recipes. Among them: creamed corn, mesquite cornbread and Indian corn mush. The creamed corn is the simplest of all of them to prepare, for the cornbread, have your seasoned skillet ready and for the Indian corn mush, you'll need squash and zucchini and give yourself some time to make this hearty dish.

References

Slumps, Grunts and Snickerdoodles: What Colonial America Ate and Why, Lila Perl, The Seaberry Press 1975

Recipes of the Hualapai Tribe, compiled by students and staff of the Hualapai Ethnobotany Project 2008, sponsored by a Christensen Fund Grant. Photos courtesy of D. Hubbs and C. Cannon.

Resources

Corn is a popular topic this month. Look who talked about it:

The Washington Post: "Lean and fit. Think more kindly of corn."

Food Channel: "Sweet new trend for sweet corn desserts."

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