Ancestral food

Alright, readers, you may have picked up on the fact that I kind of dig old school gardening. Yeah, at times it can be a pain (like with years of failure to grow cabbages). But overall it’s pretty fun, rewarding.

Something I have gotten into for the past several years has been cultivating Native strains of corn, colloquially known as “Indian corn.” Why.

First, it’s so darn handsome. Each and every ear is unique, and if you catch it just right, it’s very good “on the cob.”

Also, it is tough and the critters don’t like it as much as the hybrid sweet varieties. While it is true that Indian corn isn’t sugary sweet, you can at least eat it, which is NOT the case if raccoons get into your sweet corn patch. Those raiders will leave you with nothing.

Finally, it is a link to our ancestors, whether you are ethnically European, African, or Native, or a mixture of the above. In the past, everyone ate some variety of field corn. But we have strayed from our roots.

It has gone so far that people believe that Indian or field corn is “poisonous” or only fit for hogs.

Nonsense!

But it took some digging to figure out how to enjoy flint, field, or Indian corn. Lemme let you all in on what I have found.

First and foremost, you CAN eat field corn “on the cob.” But getting the timing right is tricky, trust me. There is no sweet spot to eating dried field corn, however, it simply must be dry. But there is a trick to eating it, you’ll lose teeth if you try to bite it.

Today I will teach the trick to you, and show one treat that you can make yourself.

There is a bare minimum of equipment needed for this, and you can actually do everything I will show you with no equipment at all.

Let me begin.

First, you must have a few ears of dry field or Indian corn. See above. (Note: even after a field has been harvested, there are always a few ears laying around.)

Then you must shell the corn. I always thought you needed some cast iron brute of a machine for this, along with a flour grinder, etc.

Nope.

For small batches, all you need is two hands. Grasp the ear of corn in both hands and make a wringing motion, preferably above a bowl or something. The kernels will pop off the ear, some of them vigorously. Before you know it, you have a lot of kernels. See below.

Now you need a pan of some sort, I used a century-old cast iron Griswold No. 8, an excellent fryer. Layer the kernels in the pan, place the pan on low heat. Remember how I said you could do this with no equipment too? That’s right. An alternate method is to chuck the kernels in hot ashes. Messy, but it works, and the ash won’t hurt you (unless you are doing this in some jacked up post-apocalyptic trash fire. Common sense rules, people).

Pretty, aren’t they? With the cast iron slowly heating, wait. You will smell something like popcorn. This is basically what is happening, so no wonder. With field corn, though, you won’t get big white blooms. The kernels will pop and jump a bit, though. This is perfect, stir the kernels from time to time on low heat.

When the corn looks like the image above and it stops popping, the corn is ready to eat, it is “parched.” Note the subtle color difference in the uncooked corn and the parched corn. See it? Another big difference? You can grab a parched kernel and chew it up, it’s an ideal trail food. If you do that with an uncooked kernel, you’ll probably break a tooth. There’s a reason that another name for field corn is “flint corn.”

Now the parched corn is ready to grind. Scoop by scoop I fed it into a mortar and mashed it up. If you have no equipment you can improvise a set-up like this.

Dump the ground-up mixture into a sieve or an old window screen. The fines will pass through, this is corn flour. Use it like, well, flour. The coarse particles that are left behind can be re-ground or be soaked in water to make grits, a US Southern specialty. Grits aren’t for everyone, but they are filling.

Now we have what we really want, corn flour or meal. There are so many things you can do with this, but today we are going to make johnnycakes, an old-fashioned specialty.

Above you can see the flour and a bowl of parched kernels. I kept dipping into the kernels for a snack, they were unlike anything I had had before. Truly a flavor from the century before last. Cool.

I took the meal and mixed it in with an egg, the result looked like cat puke. However, when I dumped it in the pan and it started to cook, it smelled great. A few minutes later and I had a real 18th century style johnnycake, made from 1/4 cup field corn flour and one egg with a bit of butter to fry in.

It tasted better than it looked, trust me. But then again, I’m hardly Gordon Ramsey.

The only regret I had was that I ate the pancake plain, with only a pinch of salt. It would have been awesome with maple syrup.

This experiment was well worth doing! Now I’m starting to get an idea how inhabitants of this land would set out on months long expeditions with literally nothing but a bit of fat, a baggie of corn kernels, and some dried fruit.

Field corn kernels are like knowledge.

Easy to find if you look for it, and a little bit goes a long way.

Give this a try!

6 thoughts on “Ancestral food

  1. I used to eat parched corn when I was in Pakistan – up in the NWFP in the Swat and Hunza valleys. Not that far from your old stomping grounds, really. They grew it on terraces on the side of ridiculously steep hills. They used to make a great trail mix with parched corn, dried apricots and the kernels from the apricots, plus a few other odds and ends for flavour. Don’t try this with the kernels from the apricots we can get here, they have a lot of cyanide in them, but the variety of apricots they grew there didn’t, for some reason. Almonds would work instead.

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  2. Ah, so that’s where grits come from. Heard of them and johnny cakes before and now I’m larnt. Don’t have those things in Oz but if I ever make it to the Land Of The Giant Burgers again I’ll check ’em out. I’m sure they’d go just fine with bacon. But then I guess most everything does.

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