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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
In my book, I talk about the origin of the tower silo, how the word originated, and trench silos, which both predated and outlived tower silos. Just to give you a visual of that the creation of silage is like, as well as what is meant by a trench silo, here are the Peterson Farm Brothers handling forage harvesting (the creation of silage) on their Kansas farm.
While I don’t imagine this is the last time the Peterson Farm Bros. will appear on my blog, it is the end of the “Life of a Farmer” series that takes viewers through a full, annual cycle of farm tasks. One of the many books I’ve read on agriculture noted that farmers are essentially owned by their farms. While some times of year are busier than others (planting and harvest come to mind), there is no time of year that the farm does not require their attention.
Hope you enjoy “Life of a Farmer” for December.