I recently added a recipe for my version of a southern classic, which is grits. This was one of those ingredients that Southerner's are very protective of and swear by their own way of enjoying this corn product. And because of all the emails I received, it looks as though our protectiveness of New England chowder is just as fierce as grits are down South. Although I think my version is VERY tasty, I will not get into the emails that weren't quite so 'delicious'. Rather, I will forward to those of you who asked me the differences between grits and cornmeal, their beginnings and the many spinoffs of both fresh and dried corn, along with some history to boot.
There are many stories and myths regarding how corn came to New England, with one of them being retold more than others of a crow carrying a kernel of corn from Mexico in or behind its' ear. Although great reading, of course it is a fallacy. But having said that, every Food Historian of any note(with a true understanding that not everything can be known)will tell you it is unsure exactly how this happened. It is known, however, that corn made its way north with a little help. Understand that this grass is not something that grows on its own in nature. Humans need to plant it. So it needs not be said that our Native Americans, during the course of their travels north, brought this maize from the highlands of Mexico to the equally high, mountainous regions of the Eastern United States. Along the way, however, the white gourdseed corn dominated. This softer-kerneled corn took longer to grow and matured far later than the northern Flint, which was perfect for the warmer climates where the extra time was available for its full growth. This white corn is the beginning of the Southerners grits.
Along with corn, our native Americans revered squash(or pumpkin) and beans, making this trio known as the "Three Sisters". Western Europe had conception of the corn that had been growing on this soil. They actually referred to almost all grains as corn until Christopher Columbus introduced it. he proclaimed in his 1492 journal as "well tasted, baked and dried and made into flour."
By the time Europeans settled this land, the American Indians were growing a good variety of corn, including Dent, Flint, Sweet and Popcorn, but not as we know them today.
Dent corn, in particular Sweet Dent Corn, was said to have been developed by James Reid in the 19th century. While he may have cross pollinated Flint with Floury corns to produce this field corn with the distinctive 'dent' in each kernel, it is the Native Americans who first grew Dent corn. It was, and still is, the most popular form of corn to be dried and ground for use in all things requiring cornmeal because of its' very thick outer skin that truly doesn't soften when boiled. It is said that this was the type of corn that Josselyn was speaking of in his account of 1674 about the Native Americans using sacks to store, and travel with, their "powdered cornmeal":
"which they make use of when stormie weather or the like will not suffer them to look out for their food".
Roger Williams, of where else but Rhode Island continues in 1643:
"I have travelled with neere 200. of them at once, neere 100. miles through the woods, every man carrying a little Basket of this[cornmeal] at his back, and sometimes in a hollow Leather Girdle about his middle, sufficient for a man three or foure daies".
Flint corn(which is often referred to as Indian corn, is of the same species of Indian corn but has a lower water content and is very resistant to the freezing temperatures found in Northern New England. In fact, it is said that during the Year Without a Summer(1816) it was the ONLY crop not to have been completely decimated by the frigid conditions in Vermont. this episode is well worth reading about by the way because it was felt world-wide, but most devastated was northern New England where snow flee in June and freezing temperatures ruined crops throughout the East coast of the U.S..
Early Indian corn was one color per stalk, with all colors growing throughout New England. The Native Americans kept the colors separated. Today, because of cross pollination, we have multi-colored ears of Indian corn. And to set the record straight, ALL corn today is actually Indian corn because our Native Americans grew all types of corn, including Dent and Flour.
Want to know what the early corn looked like?
While today’s corn has roughly 30 rows of kernels, early corn had between 8-12 rows, with the circumference of each ear being half of what we propagate now.
Did you know that the decorative multi-colored Indian corn is indeed edible? Yup! As with any corn, it should be picked prematurely. That's right. We pick our super sweet corn prematurely even today. That is why it is sweet! Corn was meant to be aged past the sweet phase and into the starch phase. As corn ripens, the sugar content turns to starch and, thusly, becomes not only chewy but less sweet as well. Even though Indian corn may not be very sweet when picked before the conversion to starch, it does retain some sugar and completely edible.
No part of the corn was wasted back then, nor is it today. The corn could be eaten green, or dried for storage and grinding. Surplus(including the stalks), cattle and poultry, with any remainder after that to be distilled into alcohol. As with the other parts of the corn, dried cobs were made into pipes, jug stoppers and tool handles while the husks were great, dried, to start fires with and to fill mattresses. The Native Americans even made a type of moccasin from the dried leaves. The husks were also used by many of our fore-mothers, when they were children, to make corn-husk dolls up until well into the 20th century. Bartering, as cash, for items needed in the home was commonplace as well, even for furs and meat well into the 19th century.
Today’s super sweet corn has been genetically modified so that the conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the corn kernel has been slowed, thereby making it last longer from the field to the table. It used to be that once you picked corn, the sweetness was declining to the taste about 20 minutes after picking. Now, days can go buy without a noticeable difference in taste.
Papoon, the Iroquois name for what we now know as sweet corn, was first introduced by the Indians to the European settlers here in New England around 1780. Country Gentleman(a white kerneled sweet corn) and Stowell's Evergreen are two varieties still around that our forefathers enjoyed. It is also known that during this same period, it is widely believed that Lt. Bagnal, a member of Sullivan's Expedition again the Iroquois, brought sweet corn seeds from the Susquahana Valley in New York to Massachusetts while Thomas Jefferson also mentions growing "shriveled corn" in his 1810 Garden Book.
Now that we have touched on the beginnings of all corn products, let's decipher individual products that is the basis for many recipes we taste today.(Finally, huh?)
Picture of Thomas Jefferson's garden, courtesy of vnews.com
Let's start with grits. Literally meaning coarse meal, from the Old English grytt, it originally meant any porridge made of wheat and other grains. More commonly called groats in England because, as I mentioned earlier in the article, all porridge consumed was made of grains such as wheat and oats, but not the corn we know of today.
Grits come in both yellow(the whole kernel) and the predominant white(hulled kernels of corn). The corn used for grits? Southern Flint or white gourdseed corn, as mentioned above.
Modern grits are now generally made of hominy, which is result of corn having the hull and germ removed through a process called nixtamalization. Nixtamalization is simply the soaking and cooking of corn in an alkaline solution of lye/lime and ash. I know how we all hate the fact that everything we put in our body is so chemically altered in some way now, and nixtamalization being another, but pallagra(a niacin deficiency) is negated by this process.
Killing the corn's germ also prevents the corn from sprouting while in storage, as our ancestors found at least as far back as 2000 B.C, when the Mexican population began slagging their corn in lye and ash.
If you have ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, Little House in the Big Woods, you will find a passage on how hominy was made more than a century ago(also telling the reader how to make the extremely popular New England favorite, Maple Candy, which was boiling maple syrup "thrown" on snow and always enjoyed with a sour pickle by the adults).
"The first day, Ma cleaned and brushed the ashes out of the cookstove. Then she burned some clean bright hardwood, and saved its ashes. She put the hardwood ashes in a little cloth bag. . . .
Early the next day Ma put the shelled corn and the bag of ashes into the big iron kettle. She filled the kettle with water, and kept it boiling a long time. At last the kernels of corn began to swell, and they swelled and swelled until their skins split open and began to peel off. . . .
With her hands she rubbed and scrubbed the corn until the hulls came off and floated on top of the water. . . .She never splashed a drop of water on her pretty dress.
When all the corn was done, Ma put the white kernels in a big jar in the pantry. Then, at last, they had hulled corn and milk for supper.
Hominy hominy hominy!"
There have been many myths and handed-down stories of grits in the South, with my favorite being that grits make ones bowel move, but cornmeal doesn't. That being said, grits are found in supermarkets everywhere, even up here in New England where we find three types of grinds, fine, medium and coarse. True Southerner’s will tell you that the only true grits are the old-fashioned stone ground while others say steel-ground are the best. But I do believe there are times when you will find even them purchasing quick grits. These are very finely ground hominy that is pre-steamed for a 5-minute cook. I find this a great alternative, although regular grits can be made in about 10 minutes.
Now about the taste! I have absolutely no problem telling you that grits is bland dish, just like I will exhort that cornmeal mush is just as bland tasting, that's why we add so many different types of flavorings. Even Bill Neal and David Perry, authors of one of the best cookbooks about this Southern staple entitled Good Old Grits Cookbook, say that grits are bland. Suffice it to say, almost everyone adds some type of flavoring, butter, salt and pepper chief among them. That is also why, when you see selections at restaurants or talk to families who grew up on grits, they will tell you that "grits-and-gravy", "grits-and-ham" and "grits-and-eggs" are the dishes most often associated with this bland "cornmeal". I actually adore grits with red-eye gravy(a reduction of pan juices from cooking ham, adding coffee and pepper). But I also enjoy grits made with a New England element in the way of Cheddar cheese, which is almost consecration in the eyes of the ardent grits lover wayyyy down South, although more and more grits-lovers are coming around.
Not to be outdone, us Northerners enjoy, and always have, our yellow cornmeal. This is simply ground, dried corn which also comes in various grinds as does grits. The finest is referred to, most often, as cornflour. Cornflour, by the way, denotes cornstarch in England, as cornmeal is known as polenta. (Don't make me explain)
We also have our "hell-bent" cornmeal lovers here in New England. Some stick with the steel ground yellow cornmeal, with the husk and germ of the kernel removed. The purists here in the North say that stone-ground cornmeal is the best. This cornmeal still retains some of the hull and germ, thereby giving it slightly more flavor. It is interesting to note that while grits have only one use, while yellow cornmeal has many. As my children would say, "just sayin' ".
Not to be outdone, the Mid-West also have cornmeal that is seldom seen, let alone used, here in New England. Blue and Red Cornmeal. Yup, there is a red corn. Although we generally see chefs with an affinity to Southwestern cuisine(such as Bobby Flay) prepare many dishes using blue cornmeal, red corn is just as flavorful. Blue corn, which contains about 20 % more protein than either yellow or white corn, is commonly used in tortilla chips while red is all but forgotten. Both have a much more intense corn flavor than yellow or white cornmeal, but with that extra flavor, it loses the sweetness of yellow corn. Both of these can be eaten in a raw or boiled state, but I think the sight of either blue or red corn on the cob has people thinking otherwise.
For many centuries, us Yankees have enjoyed(well we enjoyed it 'way back when' anyway) a dish called Cornmeal Mush. This was simply dried, ground yellow corn that has been boiled in water. In Italy, this is called Polenta. Why? My elemental theory is that if you see Cornmeal Mush on a menu, you would not be willing to pay more than a buck for it, if anything. While a menu that stated Polenta would easily herald oohs and ahhs while commanding a price of $10-$12 easily. BUT THEY ARE BOTH THE SAME THING!
When our fore-"mothers" made this dish, it was usually a ratio of four parts water to one part cornmeal, boiled for about 20 minutes with butter or drippings added. During the 19th century, jam, maple syrup, molasses, brown sugar, diced fruit and other seasonings were added to make a more palatable breakfast.
Now what I have not touched on in this article is the most famous dishes made with yellow cornmeal, and those are Jonnycakes and Jonnybreads. Find this "essay" under Johnny, Jonny or Journey? very soon both here on my blog or on my website, at theyankeechef.com. Hope I didn't bore you with too much.