Category Archives: Corn

Food of the Enslaved: Kush

If you’ve read the book Midwest Maize, you’ll know that corn was vitally important to everyone in the United States, from first settlement up to the present. It became a major part of the culture throughout the original colonies. Traditions that developed early on were spread by later migration, with corn chowder following along as New Englanders crossed the continent, grits moving across the southern Midwest as Upland Southerners arrived, and cornbread of various types coming with everyone.

In the era when the American South was known as the Land of Cotton, there was actually more corn being grown than cotton. It was a huge part of everyone’s diet, but was relied on more heavily by the enslaved African American population. In this video, an African American culinary historian demonstrates the dish known as kush, and explains that the term is related to couscous—which means the word had migrated from Africa, along with the people who were making the dish. It is a simple, inexpensive dish, but it looks incredibly good and I can’t wait to try it—though I’ll probably use regular cornbread. Hope you enjoy the little trip to the 18th century.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Food, History, Language, Midwest Maize, Recipe, Video

More of Michigan

Michigan has a surprising number of connections to the story of corn, but it is also a fun place to explore for other discoveries, old and new.

Long before Midwest Maize existed as either a book or a blog, The World’s Fare is where I posted, in addition to food history and recipes, various and sundry explorations and wanderings all over the world—from Mongolia to Morocco and even Michigan. These previous posts on great discoveries in Michigan, historical and culinary, are linked to at the end of this post. But here are a few more places I’ve stopped. (And those posts are why the title is “more of Michigan.”)

A couple of destinations were connected to my research for my book, Midwest Maize. Not too surprisingly, I wanted to visit the birthplace of corn flakes: the Sanitarium created by Dr. John Kellogg in Battle Creek, MI. I knew that the Sanitarium was hugely popular in its day, but even knowing that, I was surprised by its grandeur. Still, it doesn’t really suggest the impact Dr. Kellogg had on the world and how it eats breakfast, but his focus on cold cereal, aided by an economic downturn, convinced much of the world to switch from hot, cooked breakfasts of meat and eggs to a bowl of crispy flakes with milk.

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Not quite as universally recognizable in the world of culture-changers is Chelsea Milling in Chelsea, MI, but this is where Mabel White Holmes, who would become the family-run business’s third president, created the first prepared baking mix products in the U.S. – the now familiar Jiffy Mix line. It was the corn muffins, quite naturally, that drew me to the plant, where I learned that today, during the fall and winter busy season, Chelsea turns out roughly 1.5 million boxes of corn muffin mix per day. Just one more example of why it’s a good thing the Midwest grows a lot of corn. (And note: they do offer free tours.)

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Not connected to my book research, but definitely connected to food and a favored destination most of the times I crossed Michigan is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. I’ve enjoyed the deli, the bakery, the creamery, and the coffee roastery, which are all part of Zingerman’s sprawling universe of exceptional food, but the place I saw most often was Zingerman’s Roadhouse, where the fried green tomatoes and ancho beef chuck chili bordered on addictions, though I did enjoy several other splendid dishes over the years (grits are amazing, and anything from their smokehouse is worthwhile).

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Finally, I think it’s always worthwhile to hunt up venerable, family-run businesses in small, old towns anywhere I travel. To that end, I have on a number of occasions pulled off the highway at Three Oaks, MI, to visit Drier’s Meat Market. Drier’s, a National Historic Site that still has a Drier behind the counter, might be said to have somewhat oblique connection to corn: corn was and is fed to pigs, and pigs are a major part of what they work with at Drier’s. Beautiful hams and sausages are produced according to old, family recipes and are smoked in the century-old smokers on site. If you never try anything else, the ham salad is worth the detour.

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And here are the promised past posts:

Exploring history at absolutely remarkable Greenfield Village: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/michigans-greenfield-village/

Enjoying nature and the culinary scene in Traverse City: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/traverse-city/

Dining at historic stagecoach stops in Michigan and California: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/stagecoach-stopovers/

So if you find yourself driving across the Midwest—or anywhere else—do get off the highway occasionally. There are some wonderful things to see, wherever you’re going.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Heirloom Popcorn

Shortly before my book came out, I was working at the Culinary Historians booth at a Whole Foods heirloom foods fair. There were a lot of interesting offerings, from vegetables and fruits to packets of seeds to fragrant flowers. In the booth next to the Culinary Historians booth there were people offering samples of a remarkable heirloom popcorn with tiny kernels. When there was a lag in the traffic, the women staffing that booth offered us some of the popcorn they were promoting. It was tiny but flavorful — living up to its name, Tiny but Mighty.

Then today, on YouTube, this video appeared among the suggestions for my viewing pleasure (interesting how they figure out what is likely to catch one’s attention). It was about that tiny popcorn. The video, however, showed more than the demo at Whole Foods, including that one seed gives you many stalks. This interested me because the plant from which corn originally developed, teosinte, while smaller than even this diminutive corn, likewise has many branches — and it pops. So more than just being an heirloom, this popcorn seems to be a real throw back to earlier varieties–much earlier. So it has now been added to my shopping list — but I thought I’d also share the video. Enjoy.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Video

Advising Eater

Thanks to a recommendation from fellow food historian Rachel Laudan, when Eater needed an expert on corn for some videos they had in mind, they contacted me. Their main interest was in the very early history of corn—essentially stuff limited to chapter 1 of my book. But it was still great fun sharing tales with them—and then seeing my name at the end of the videos (which are very cleverly animated). No wealth coming from this, but a little recognition is greatly appreciated.

If you’re interested, here are the two videos that were the result:

 

 

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Food, History, Video

Tips for Grilling Sweet Corn

My book, Midwest Maize, has recipes for some historic dishes, but if you’re not looking for history and just want to enjoy some sweet corn on the grill this summer, here is a video with some suggestions that might help make your efforts on the grill more successful.

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Filed under Corn, Food, Uncategorized, Video

Cornbread in the 1700s

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Jas. Townsend and Son, where cooking from the 18th century is explained and demonstrated. Having done a bit of Revolutionary War-era re-enacting myself, I am particularly attracted to this information, though my work as a food historian reinforces this interest.

In this episode, James Townsend demonstrates an early form of cornbread, from the oldest known American cookbook, but Amelia Simmons. I have a reproduction of this cookbook, and reading it makes me really appreciate the work that goes into translating early recipes into practical instructions, as Townsend does. I can recommend pretty much any of his videos, as they show a whole range of cooking from the 1700s, from soldiers’ fare to party food. Some of the recipes I plan on trying, others, I simply marvel at.

But here, to start, is the Amelia Simmons approach to making cornbread.

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Pinckney Bend

One of the loveliest aspects of being a writer is the people with whom my work connects me. Most often, this is people I’m interviewing for books and articles, but occasionally, it’s people who approach me because they have enjoyed my writing. Such was the case with Ralph of Pinckney Bend Distillery.

Pinckney Bend crafts whiskey in the style of the 1800s, using heirloom corn, to make it as much like the historic drink as possible. After reading my book, Midwest Maize, which addresses the historic creation of whiskey from corn, Ralph contacted me to let me know he’d read and liked my book and to tell me about their efforts to recreate that sense of history. I love that there is someone who loves history enough to go to this extra effort—to not simply use old methods to produce the product but even growing old types of corn to make certain they’re being historically accurate.

I haven’t yet made it down to Missouri, to visit Pinckney Bend or sample their whiskey, but it has certainly been added to my travel plans for the coming year. I’ve done a bit of re-enacting (American Revolution), regularly visit places that recreate history, such as Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village, and been to a few historic banquets (Elizabethan England, Napoleonic France, and a few visits to the American Civil War), and there is a special joy in tasting something that connects you to an important period of history. At least there is if you love history, and I do.

If you’re interested in knowing more, about the place and the product, here’s a link to the history of Pinckney Bend (good Lewis & Clark story, among other tales), and you can explore their products from there.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel