Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tried and True - Corn Bread

About four hundred years ago corn was the only available grain in the Americas, except for wild rice.  Over the decades other grains became widely available, though often more expensive.  By then the colonists "had discovered that they had been educated into liking cornbread".  (Eating in America by Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont)  Growing, grinding and eating corn continued to be an important part of the American way of life.

Pioneers and early settlers downed lots of corn meal, in the form of johnnycakes, hoecakes, hush puppies, pone and spoon bread.  Often this was not their first choice.  "As our money was growing scarce, my husband bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which was only one-third the price of wheaten flour . . . It's taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it; but as it is wholesome food, it is much used for making bread."  Rebecca Berlend, 1848, The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell, p. 220.

Since the days when white people depended on Native Americans to help them learn what to do with corn and frontier cooks made do,  a lot has happened.  We have gone way beyond corn bread and corn meal mush and corn is the commodity king.  American science, ingenuity and market competition have come up with lots of ways to use corn as food for people, livestock and cars.  In the average American supermarket there are over 45,000 items, over 1/4 of which contain corn.  (Often in the form of corn syrup sweeteners, unfortunately.)

I find it interesting that even though corn is ubiquitous in American processed foods, the average Midwesterner doesn't cook much with plain old inexpensive corn meal any more.  It is often hard to find good corn meal.  Those little round Quaker boxes just don't cut it.  That corn meal might be okay for dredging pan fish for frying, but it really isn't very good for baking or cooking as cereal, if you ask me.  Many food co-ops have at least one variety of stone ground corn meal that is just fine for corn bread, muffins, pancakes and waffles.  I have also had good luck with Hodgson's Mill brand of white or yellow cornmeal, available in many supermarkets.  (Remember that whole grain (not degerminated) cornmeal must be kept refrigerated or frozen to keep fresh.

But if you want to aim even higher, you can.  For the corn meal culinary cutting edge, look south.

Southerners still take their corn meal seriously.  One such Southerner is Glenn Roberts, the proprietor of Anson Mills, located in Charleston, South Carolina.  He started his business in 1998, with the ambitious plan of growing, harvesting and milling near extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice and wheat.  He works with thirty organic growers in six states and supplies many noted chefs across the country.  Anson Mills products are available at retail.  They are not cheap, but they are noted for their flavor.   Here is a classic corn bread recipe from Anson Mills.  If you don't have a black skillet (cast iron frying pan) then a heavy glass, pottery or metal baking dish will do just fine.  Note that there is also a recipe for corn meal muffins on this site.

Meanwhile,  my husband Frank and I have been having fun growing and grinding our own corn meal. He found Nothstine Dent -  a "classic Northern Michigan heirloom" -  in the Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog.  It is known for its sweet, delicious flavor.  These heirloom grinding corns are generally not high yielding, so they are difficult to find commercially.  But as the market for these specialty grains grows,  hopefully more farmers will take up the challenge to provide a supply.

Someday we might invest in a small stone mill for grinding - but for now we do just fine with our $99. grain mill attachment for our Kitchen Aid mixer.  Looks a little scary but it is easy to use.

Here is a batch of black skillet corn bread, made according to the Anson Mills recipe with our own Nothstine Dent corn.  Guess what we will be having for breakfast this morning?  With some butter and honey or sorghum.   Who needs those English scones when you can make your own corn bread? Maybe you can make some American cornbread this weekend in honor of the Fourth of July.

Happy Fourth of July.  God bless America and God bless the farmers growing corn for old fashioned cornmeal.


  1. Hi Peggy, I've been making many of your recipes, and taking pictures, too! Below is a link of some of them. This weekend my fiance and I had our first taste of kohlrabi, made your beet salad (even the Featherstone Farm vinaigrette), we made our first pesto, and I made some corn bread for our Monday morning walk. Although we got wrapped up in looking at the houses in a nearby neighborhood and forgot to eat it until we got home. I haven't put the picture up yet, but it looks just like yours. Another use for what I call my Pierogie Pan.

    I hope the link works:

    Thank you, thank you for this blog!

  2. Hi Manda,
    Thanks for the comment. I did go to your link - I think you have the food gene. It is a blessing and a curse. Mostly a blessing. It feels like a curse when you are up at 11 p.m. and doing something like thinly slicing 10 pounds of cabbage to make sauerkraut and canning tomatoes at the same time. But we do have nice meals all winter. Why don't you put some pictures of your
    CSA based meals on Featherstone's facebook page?

  3. Thanks Peggy! My fiance and I decided to take on the CSA to help us eat healthier. He's now a veggie convert and I'm learning to cook! It's been a total blast. I'll try to post some of the pics on facebook, good idea!