The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the hundreds of books submitted, is still gratifying.
Category Archives: Recipe
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.
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.
Historically, all corn is from Oaxaca, a southern state in Mexico. That’s the region where corn/maize first arose, before spreading through the Americas. However, while I was in Oaxaca, learning more about how and when this remarkable grain first arose, I discovered a local application for sweet corn that became a minor addiction.
In Mexico, sweet corn, often still on the cob, is called elote, while the word maíz refers to the type of corn dried for grinding. In the city of Oaxaca, the place I most commonly saw the word elote (or, sometimes, elote exquisto) was on the sides of carts belonging to street vendors who were selling corn on the cob. Near the center of town, these vendors were common, and each one would have his own little spin on how he prepared the elote—but they all had the same basic ingredients. They would pull several fresh, hot ears of sweet corn out of their steamers and let me pick the one I liked best. They would poke a short wooden handle in the end of the cob I’d chosen, and then they would set to work, preparing what became my favorite light meal while I was there. The ingredients may surprise you, but this is absolutely wonderful. Enjoy.
Mexican Corn on the Cob
Fresh, sweet corn on the cob, cooked and hot
Sharp, crumbly cheese, shredded or grated (cotija would be the cheese used in Mexico, but if you can’t get it, Parmesan works well)
Lime wedge (optional)
Salt to taste
You’ll need to figure out the handle issue before you get started. In Mexico, the handles are made of short pieces of wood cut to suit, but a blunt knife or maybe a fork could be stuck in the end of the corn cob if you don’t have a piece of wood. (You do need a handle for this. If you don’t have any other way of doing it, you could trim the pointy end of the corn so that you could use those little “corn holders” they sell for eating corn on the cob. However, it’s unlikely those would work if you only had them stuck in one end. So definitely figure this out before you start.) Alternatively, I’ve been to one Latino restaurant where they cut the corn off the cob and just mix the other ingredients into the corn kernels, thus eliminating the need for a handle. You lose the fun of eating corn off the cob, but it is much tidier and still delicious.
Spread a layer of mayonnaise—enough to coat—over the hot corn, then roll the corn in the cheese or sprinkle the cheese over the corn while turning it. (My favorite vendors would always put the corn down in the cheese and heap it on top, to make sure the ear got well coated, then they’d let the excess fall off.) Then sprinkle with chile powder and salt to taste (though you may not need salt, as the mayo and cheese are salty — so try it first). A few vendors finished this off with a squeeze of lime, which is a nice, fresh touch, but I didn’t find that this appreciably altered my enjoyment of the dish, and it can make it drippy, and thus messier to eat.