Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thanksgiving - Maize (or Hominy)

Acrylic painting, 2x3 feet, by author
        When most of us think "corn," we mentally picture yellow ears or kernels, drenched in butter, filled with "milk," tender and easy to gnaw from the cob. There are now over two hundred varieties of sweet corn, but in 1621 sweet corn did not exist. All the Pilgrims found upon arrival in the New World was maize, bright-colored and completely alien to their experience and palates.
       The settlers arrived in the New World in November, too late to plant anything, too late to build shelters for everyone against the coming harsh winter. The one structure they did put up, burned down in January. Many were forced to live on the cramped ship that brought them; there was no place else. Log cabins hadn’t been invented yet, and lumber and labor were scarce. During that first winter sickness took over half the new arrivals. Children were among those who survived, further limiting the available work force. The entire settlement would certainly have perished if not for the intervention of a former Indian slave.
       Squanto had been taken to England as a slave and later granted his freedom, but when he returned to his home, he found that his entire village had died. Instead of hating the race that had taken him from his family, he taught the settlers how to plant and cultivate corn, how to use fish to manure it, and how to find other provisions. They tried planting wheat and some other English seeds, but all those crops failed. Corn was their salvation.
       But the way they prepared and ate it differs from our vision. You could have broken a tooth trying to chew Seventeenth Century maize. Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to soak it in water that had been run through ashes. This caused the kernels to expand and break the hard shells, creating hominy, which could be eaten as a cereal. Dried, it was ground into meal, or ground finer into flour. They learned to use it in puddings, bread, soups, stews and mush, and eventually, for livestock feed, mattress filler, and a source of heat.
       As for the yellow field corn we know today, it wasn’t developed until the last third of the Nineteenth Century. Sweet corn is even more recent.
       The corn that saved the Pilgrims and made the first Thanksgiving possible is now grown nearly exclusively as an ornament. Ask almost anyone about eating it, and it is likely they will tell you it’s inedible. I question that since I’ve grown and ground some myself for cornmeal.
       Recipes for preparing sweet corn abound so I won’t include any of those here, but how about directions for making hominy? The process, I’ve read, makes corn both more nutritious and tastier. It’s unlikely that you’ll win kudos if you include this at your traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but you might want to try it as an experiment to gain more appreciation for the corn we know and love today, or simply so you’ll know how it’s done. I found a site that describes the process,, but the directions printed out to five pages, four more than I’d want to include here. The author says his first few efforts to do this himself failed, so I’m not comfortable giving you a shortened version. No, I have not tried this myself.
       Among the references for writing this was William Bradford's History of Plymouth Colony.

1 comment:

  1. Love your picture and I enjoyed reading the post. We were in Williamsburg Va in November and heard there how recently sweet corn was developed.