The Corn Culture
For most Native societies of the Northeast, corn was a staple food. Half of their diet was garden foods. Some have been even been theorized as having up to 60% or 70% percent of their diets based on the crops they grew (exceptions include areas far north such as Maine and the North sides of the Great Lakes, as well as some coastal areas in New England). With the few exceptions, most Northeastern Native American People can be described as intensive horticulturalists, who hunted and gathered.
All Corn Is Indian Corn
Many people think of multicolored decorative Indian corn as the corn Native Peoples grew and ate. This is not wrong. Flint corn varieties are the ancestor of what we refer to as modern “Indian corn.” In the past, Flint corn came in different colors, such as yellow, blue (purple), and red, however, the Native people kept the varieties separated, and so very few ears of corn had more than one color on them. Today, we purposely mix the corn together to multi-color it for decoration. Flint corn or “Indian corn” is edible, when one grows and processes it correctly. It was never grown for decorative purposes like we do today. It should also be noted that although we refer to Flint corn as “Indian corn,” all corn is Indian corn. The Native People grew many varieties of Flint, Flour, Dent (Tooth), and Sweet (Soft or Green) that we derived all our present varieties of corn from. Today’s Flour and Dent corns were first grown, and invented by the Native American People. Sweet corn, as we know it, was introduced just decades ago but is still a descended from Native Sweet varieties. Sweet corn was made to have a larger sugar content from its previous variety. In fact, most modern varieties of corn plants have been altered to give larger quantities – more ears per plant, and larger ears with more kernels. Native corns of the 17th century had ears of 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 rows of kernels; today’s ears of sweet corn can have over 30 rows. Of course, quantity does not mean quality. Growing bigger ears of corn did not mean it was actually better than its predecessors. Today, more feed corn (possibly twice as much) must be feed to domesticated animals then at the start of the 20th century, to meet their dietary needs. The corn we have made has grown larger in its content of water and sugar, but less of actual nutrition.
Native Corn Processing
Ears of corn were plucked from the stalk, or sometimes the corn stalks (with the ears attached) were bundled and brought to an area where family members were already hard at work peeling the husk back from each ear. For the Iroquois, husking parties or “bees” were created to do the work in the company of family and friends. The corn was propped upright to dry before being collected for storage. Some corn had to dry longer, especially for those who may have experienced a shorter growing season. Native folks like the Delaware were noted to braid the husk and hang the corn from their roof rafters. Hanging high in the home allowed them to dry in the smoke of the interior fire(s) free from moisture and insects.
Many probably blanched their dry corn kernels to kill any insects that may had been inside. Insects could easily threaten a store of corn, and for people who existed on corn, protecting the corn was key. Corn was packed into baskets and fiber-twinned storage bags, and placed into storage pits for long-term storage. Other baskets and bags full of corn for short-term use were packed into shelves in the home. Storage pits were dug into the ground in or outside the home. They were lined with mats, clay, or bark and presumably coverings such as bark was propped to guide rainwater off the top of the pit, so foods won’t get wet and spoil. Corncribs were probably utilized by some Northeastern tribes before European contact however, to what Native community and to what extent is largely unknown and debatable. Corncribs were used later on by some Native communities during the historic period.
Cornmeal was the base for most corn dishes, which meant the Native People must have had a sufficient means of grinding cornmeal. This was usually done in large log mortars with heavy wooden pestles. Men expertly carved pestle ends to match the shape of the log mortar basins, ensuring the corn would be crushed with less effort. The pestles were usually double-ended, and about three feet long. This type of pestle was meant to be lifted and “dropped” onto the corn, the weight of the pestle alone enough to crush it into meal. With the right mortar and pestle made for this job, grinding cornmeal was not as big of a production as many believe it was. Daily cornmeal was grinded by women in time that could be counted in double-digit minutes, not in hours.
Cornmeal is inherently a hard flour, and while it can be used as is, mixed with water and cooked right away, the product can be a little gritty. This is not to say it was bad, in fact, gritty was a texture liked by many. It was hearty and satisfying, in a way many might feel whole grain foods to be today. However some Native dishes called for a softer, smoother dough of cornmeal. To achieve this, cornmeal was pre-cooked. Connecticut Native cooks were observed boiling cornmeal before baking it. The author concurs that this method is a great way to create a smoother textured product, as she and her husband do the same before making many historical Native corn dishes. In fact, pre-cooked cornmeal is a staple to this day, and is commonly sold in Mexican groceries and ethnic food isles to make specific soft wraps, breads, and tortias.
A Few Examples of Woodland Indian Corn Dishes
Baked ashcakes are cornmeal cakes (bread patties) that have been baked in the open fire directly on coals or rocks. In doing this, some ashes would cling to the cakes, giving them the common name “ashcakes.” Some Native People had preferences as to what kind of wood was burned to produce coals that would not stick to the ashcakes too much. This was not only a common recipe in most Northeastern Indian societies, was also a common bread of pioneers who baked ashcakes on the hot, flat surface of their fireplace, where it too picked up ashes. Ashes, in low amounts, were not harmful to digest, however in large amounts, could be poisonous.
Baked Scraped Green Corn Bread
Green corn refers to ripe corn (when it is ready to eat on the cob). This was a dish noted among the Iroquois, although the use of scraped green corn for bread was found among most Northeastern Native Americans. Green corn ears could be scraped of its kernels with a knife, or a deer jaw bone (considered to be a perfect tool for this job). The idea was not to cut the kernels off, but rather ‘‹Å”pop’ each kernel from its hull. When this was done, it was the soft kernel inside and its milk or juice that was scraped off. The milk could be separated from the soft corn mass, and consumed or added to another dish. In fact, along with hickory nut milk, this corn milk was noted to be used as a type of baby formula. The corn mass and milk could also be kept together, and used as a base for corn bread. This was achieved by taking the corn mass and milk, mixing some dry cornmeal in with it, and pouring the liquid batter into a kettle lined with green leaves. The mix and pot opening was then covered with the same leaves, and the kettle was surrounded by hot coals. Hot coals were even placed on top (hence the green leaves on top to protect the bread). It was baked for hours, many times overnight. The result was scraped green corn bread – a soft, crumbly and sometimes gummy bread that was considered (and still is by many today) an absolute treat. This is a particular favorite Native bread of the author who enjoys baking it in cast iron kettles for public demonstrations.
Boiled cornbread was especially noted as an Iroquois recipe, however, it was probably a common bread for most Northeastern Native communities. Dry cornmeal was mixed with water to make the bread dough, which was then dropped into boiling water to cook. When boiling the cornbread was finished, the cook was left with a pot of corn ‘‹Å”broth.’ This liquid would not go to waste as it would become the base for a stew or it was consumed as a drink.
Corn and Chestnut Pudding (With Blackberries)
Cornmeal was cooked down in water until it reached a pudding state. Many tribes of the Northeast made a variety of different corn puddings, sometimes with squash added, sometimes with hickory nut meal added (a favorite pudding of the author), and sometimes with meat added. In Southern New England, the Native People added boiled chestnuts, a particularly well-liked nut among the Delaware and Southern New England Native communities. To this corn and chestnut pudding they also added blackberries.
Dry cornmeal was mixed with water, or scrapped green corn in its milk was used to make corn fritters. They were formed and dropped on a hot greased surface or into hot animal fat to fry. The author’s husband is especially fond of these Native corn fritters. While all Woodland Indian societies made use of animal fat in cooking, “frying” does not seem to be the norm among most New England coastal folks at the time of contact, who preferred boiling to frying.
Hominy is not only a Native dish, it is also a Native word. Today, farmers grow a type of corn used to make the canned hominy found in the grocery markets. Back in historic times, the Delaware and other Native Americans of the Northeast used varieties of corn from the Flint corn family. This corn was soaked in a lye made of hardwood ashes and water. This lye would burn the hulls off each kernel, and cause each kernel to swell. Because corn varieties of the Flint family can come in different colors, it is worth noting that no matter the color of corn that was used, it would turn into a golden color after the lye process. This was because the color of the corn existed mainly in the hulls, which were burned off. For example, Delaware Blue corn made golden hominy. The hominy had to be rinsed several times, as the lye made by large amounts of ashes was toxic. The hominy made with this process contained amino acids, and was a favored dish that was also easily dried and stored for later use. The hominy was flavored with animal fat and Maple sugar (where it was available). Europeans adopted this dish, adding salt and butter or salt pork (a favorite hominy seasoning of the author). Hominy was noted to be a rationed food for daily meals among the voyagers working for large trading companies.
The most famous of baked husk breads today is referred to as ‘‹Å”tamales,’ a traditional Mexican dish of seasoned meat (usually beef or pork) stuffed corn bread baked in cornhusk and smothered with pepper sauce. While this dish may be of Mexican-Indian origin and cuisine, many cultures who grew corn would bake bread in the cornhusk. The simplest form was husk bread, which was corn bread (cornmeal and water) wrapped in cornhusk, and then baked, boiled, or even fried. The cornhusk wrapping created a mini oven for each piece of bread, giving the bread a unique texture and flavor.
Parched corn is dried corn kernels roasted over a fire. This caused the kernel to ‘‹Å”pop’ on the inside, like popcorn, just not pop all the way inside out. Parched corn was a favored trail food (and a favored snack of the author’s husband), and was usually cracked or ground into a meal and eaten with water, as it was very hard to eat whole, and very filling when it was mixed with water. It was sometimes combined with Maple sugar or dried berries too. It is not the same as “Corn Nuts” sold in stores today, as those are deep-fried, however, parched corn is just as hard. Parched corn meal was also used in breads and puddings.
Roasted Green Corn
The most simplest seasonal corn dish was roasted green corn. Ripe corn left in its husk was soaked and thrown into the fire where it was surrounded with hot coals. While a simple dish, it was quite flavorful. No need for any seasonings, the corn kernels would brown and caramelize while roasting.
Succotash was originally a Native American dish and in fact, the word succotash is derived from a Native American term. In the Northeast, traditional succotash consisted of corn and beans, with animal grease and/or Maple sugar added for flavoring. Europeans and later Americans adopted succotash as their own, adding salt, pork, and other typical European fare and flavoring to the dish.
-“Corn, Planting the Seeds of the Past for Our Future” Article by Sheryl Hartman
-“David Zeisberger’s History of the North American Indians” Account by David Zeisberger
-“History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States” Account by Rev. John Heckewelder
-“Indian New England Before the Mayflower” By Howard S. Russell
-“Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650” By Kathleen J. Bragdon
-“Parker on the Iroquois” By Arthur C. Parker
-“Plants From the Past” By Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler
-“The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage, 10,000BC to AD2000” By Herbert C. Kraft