Long before the first Europeans settled here, corn was a South Carolina staple of life. As part of the Native American “three sisters” approach to agriculture, corn, along with pumpkins and legumes, figured prominently in daily diet. Pioneers learned of its uses and methods of cultivation from the American Indians and readily adopted the grain that was foreign to their experience. In time, they would use it in an amazing variety of ways.
These included standard native American approaches such as “samp” (ground corn soaked in milk until it reached a porridge consistency); bread made from grains that had been pounded with homemade pestles fashioned from especially hard timber such as dogwood; and hominy. Early settlers expanded these uses of corn in dramatic fashion — as food, fodder for farm animals during winter’s lean months, fall fattening of hogs, and cracked grain and inferior ears called “nubbins” as scratch feed for chickens. Crude mattresses were sometimes stuffed with husks while cobs soaked in kerosene furnished a swift way to get a fire started in cook stoves.
Most notorious was “liquid corn.” Distilled spirits variously described as white lightning, squeezin’s, golden moonbeam, stump water, tanglefoot, mountain dew, peartning juice, and snakebite medicine became a standard, albeit illicit, offshoot of life for many along with offering a welcome way to earn “cash money.”
Corn could be raised almost anywhere — from rich bottomlands to hillsides where girdled trees let in enough sun to grow a patch for a few years until the thin soil was exhausted. The grain figured prominently in the diet at all seasons and for all classes, and such continues to be the case. A breakfast without a bowl of grits seems unthinkable, and what is a summer feast without corn on the cob? Although it is not now the case, thanks to its essential place among foodstuffs and versatility of use, corn was once the quintessential agricultural crop grown for human consumption.
Spring planting would find families sowing row upon row, using seed after carefully saved seed. There would be field corn such as Hickory King for animal food and cornmeal, decorative multi-colored Indian corn, and sweet corn to be eaten fresh during the summer. Successive plantings, spaced two weeks apart, could produce fresh corn from the first roasting ears of the year well into late summer’s dog days.
Thanks to growing tall and strong, field corn was tailor-made for its symbiotic relationship with other plants in the traditional “three sisters” crop system. Corn stalks provided support for October beans or other climbers such as field peas. Pumpkins completed the interstice of the three sisters, and many corn patches also had volunteer ground cherries amongst the rows.
“Garden truck” corn was harvested for the table and for canning by itself or as the base ingredient in soup mix with the ears still green and the kernels in the milk stage. Field corn, with its lower sugar and higher starch content, normally occupied far more cultivated space. The explanation was simple — for most homes, it produced the meal from which the majority of their daily bread was baked, grits were ground, and hominy processed.
Old-time cooks’ ingenuity when it came to the use of corn was incredible. Fresh sweet corn could be roasted, boiled, or, as it matured and became increasingly starchy, cut from the cob and prepared cream-style. Another use for the slightly starchy but still soft kernels was gritted cakes, made by mixing corn freshly cut from the cob with cornmeal and cooked on a griddle. Cornmeal could be used in numerous ways — pones baked in a cast iron skillet greased with fatback, hoecakes, muffins, fritters, corn dodgers, and the like. Often, especially in the case of pones, bread was made more delectable through the addition of cracklings, bits of bacon, chopped green onions, or flakes of hot pepper. Almost always, when served hot, cornbread was accompanied by a hefty slathering of home-churned butter.
While biscuits or buckwheat cakes might form featured items on the breakfast menu, the main meal of the day, dinner (and in my country boy lexicon that’s the midday repast) invariably offered hot cornbread accompanied by whatever the season and family circumstances allowed. Those items included fresh vegetables in the summer; canned or dried vegetables from late fall until the first wild greens of spring; long-keeping items that stored well, such as pumpkin, winter squash, turnips, and onions; and the primary meat in most folks’ diet, pork, served as fried fatback, in sawmill gravy, as sausage with milk gravy, or less frequently, cured ham.
Any wild game that the men folks happened to trap or kill, along with fish caught from rivers and streams, offered variety. Add dried fruit such as peaches or apples reconstituted into “sauce” or perhaps that fruit made into fried pies as dessert, and you had mighty tasty eating.
Always though, no matter what the supplemental fare, were items based on that veritable staff of life, corn. Often supper would be nothing more than a hefty chunk of cold cornbread, perhaps accompanied by slices of raw onion, with a big glass of sweet milk or buttermilk from the springhouse.
The meal ground to make cornbread, whether baked as a pone or prepared in any of its many other manifestations, came from patches set aside for that purpose. Ears would be allowed to dry in the sun before being pulled from the stalks and stored. One important characteristic of corn — in days before electricity, freezers, and all sorts of modern conveniences — was how it lent itself to storage. Weevils and flour moths could wreak havoc with ground meal, but corn still on the cob with husks intact was much more resistant to insects.
Every farm had a corn crib, and a “friendly” king snake or black snake, perhaps ably aided by a cat that was a good “mouser,” kept rats and mice at bay. Beyond that, a roof to keep out rain and snow was about all corn required until such time as it was ready to be shucked and shelled for livestock feed, toted to a nearby mill for a run of cornmeal, made into grits, or used for hominy.
For grits, background preparation was a straightforward undertaking involving little more than a different setting for grinding stones at the local mill. Hominy, however, required considerable effort. A lye solution, formed by mixing wood ashes and water, softened the tough hull of corn. The grains swelled and shed the hull while soaking, and after repeated rinsing with fresh water, the ultimate result was hominy. It could be eaten immediately or canned, and one of its advantages was that small “runs” could be made whenever needed.
Beyond provision of food, corn was a plant where everything was used (much like hogs, where you processed everything but the squeal). Fodder fed cattle and hogs, and carefully constructed corn shocks were a standard feature in winter fields where they often did double duty in protecting other foodstuffs such as pumpkins, cabbage, and turnips. Buried in straw beneath the base of a sizeable corn shock, they were nicely sheltered from the elements until such time as they were needed in the family kitchen.
Where “cash money” was scarce as hen’s teeth, a common situation, dolls fashioned from corn shucks and “dolled up” with bits of cloth from a flour sack provided cost-free playthings for children. Even cobs had uses. Corn cob jelly and corn cob dumplings were actually considered delicacies. Cobs could be shaped into bowls for homemade pipes to smoke homegrown burley tobacco. Insertion of a slender peg of hickory or other dense wood turned a portion of a cob into a striker for slate turkey calls.
For generations, corn was ubiquitous with culinary matters. In some form, and maybe several, it would be consumed every day throughout the year. Cornbread graced tables as a matter of course, and many a lad and lass carried their lunch to school in a bucket that contained a chunk of cornbread and molasses. Those are merely two examples of the most common of usages. The ingenuity of those who went before us found a myriad of ways to enjoy this culinary pillar of life.
Many still today feel nothing rivals corn fresh from the garden. Boiled for a couple of minutes or cooked over charcoal with the shuck still in place, freshly harvested corn in the milky stage is fit to grace tables in any five-star restaurant.
As the ears mature and begin to make the transfer from sugar to starch, fresh corn can continue to be enjoyed. Gritted bread, which I haven’t enjoyed in many a year, finds grated corn being mixed with flour, salt, a bit of baking soda and some bacon or streaked meat grease, then cooked in a cast-iron pan.
Speaking of bread, in the past cornbread appeared daily on menus, while biscuits made with wheat flour were reserved primarily for breakfast and special occasions. Still, there was enough variety to remove any danger that cornbread would become so commonplace as to be unwelcome.
Nor should the wonder of grits be for a moment overlooked. Let folks from outside the South, pantywaist connoisseurs of cream of wheat, see a bowl of grits and they shake their heads in dismay or derision. Yet it is a dish, much like the corn from which it is produced, of incredible versatility and delectability. Buttered grits, grits and gravy, cheese grits, fried grits cakes, grilled grits, and various other uses come immediately to mind.
Corn no longer figures as prominently in diet as was once the case. From the standpoint of health, that is probably just as well, but it must be remembered that folks who lived close to the land and worked hard from first light to coming night planted what was most efficient as a food source and seldom worried about being overweight. The next time a slice of buttered cornbread graces your plate, don’t think about cholesterol. Instead, pause and ponder for a moment of wonder. Your eyes are beholding something scrumptious that was once an integral and vitally important part of life.
In short, corn deserves praise for taste, versatility, and as longtime staff of Southern life. We’ll finish with a couple of recipes – one for the most popular usage, cornbread, and the other an approach which might be new. They merely suggest the endless possibilities corn offers for delectable eating.
The keys to making really good cornbread are: (1) use a well-greased cast iron skillet; (2) grease the skillet with streaked meat or bacon; (3) use stone-ground cornmeal; and (4) include the right ingredients. Buttermilk, eggs, and lard are essential if you want really moist cornbread. This simple recipe has served me and my family well for as far back as my memory stretches, and I know Grandma Minnie was preparing it this way, though she never measured, before the turn of the 20th century.
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
3 tablespoons lard (animal fat)
Prepare skillet in advance by heating 2 tablespoons of lard. Mix the buttermilk, salt, baking soda, and egg with cornmeal and a tablespoon of melted lard. Stir thoroughly. Pour batter into preheated skillet and bake at 425 F for a half hour or until the top crust is golden brown.
To prepare cornbread salad, crumble leftover cornbread and mix with whatever vegetables you happen to have available. Good choices include tomatoes chopped up fine, onions prepared the same way, diced cucumbers, cooked crowder peas (drain them), and raw corn cut straight from the cob. If you want a bit of “heat,” chop 1 or 2 cayenne peppers and add to the mix. Stir and top with ranch dressing or oil and vinegar. Alternatively, mix in some sour cream. Once you have gently stirred it, I find it best to let the bowl sit in the refrigerator for a few hours so the ingredients can mix, mingle, and marry.