Monday, September 27, 2010

Grinding Corn

The Native People of America relied on corn as a mainstay of their diet. They grew what we call "Indian corn," the beautiful multi-colored corn which we use to decorate our homes this time of year in celebration of the harvest.

In order to make the hard, dry corn edible, they had to parch it or grind it or both.

In the picture above you can see a reproduction mortar and pestle used by the Native people for pounding corn. Corn was placed in the wooden bowl of the mortar, and the heavy stone pestle was lifted and pounded down repeatedly to reduce the corn to smithereens, making flour or a coarse meal.

Parching was used to remove the tough corn hulls. Native women made a mixture of hardwood ashes and water and boiled them to make lye. Flint corn kernels were added to the lye and boiled some more. Later, the corn kernels were rinsed many times and then rubbed between the hands to remove the hulls. After drying in the sun, the kernels could be eaten as they were, or ground up.

Nocake, or Noohkik, was pounded parched corn used as a trail food by hunters. Here is a picture of a Wampanoag boy having breakfast on the trail in the book "Tapenum's Day" by Kate Waters, a story of a boy in the 1620's.

Nasaump was hot cereal made from unparched corn meal. The English called it "samp." Nowadays we call it hominy. Samp could also be cooled, cut into little cakes, and fried in butter.

Johnny cakes were flat little pancakes made of ground corn, salt, maple syrup, and water, and Southern New Englanders still love to eat them. Other corn-based native recipes, like ashcakes, succotash, and stew, used fresh sweet corn.

Children love to try pounding corn. We made a shallow mortar and pestle so that second graders at my child's school could have a turn. I used an old cutting board as a base, and my husband cut a hole in a piece of plywood to screw to the base. It helped keep the ground corn somewhat contained. Corn is going to fly everywhere, though. So either do this outside, or add a few more layers of plywood to make a deeper bowl.

I found a nice pestle on the beach, and ground one end of it on a rock to flatten it a little. We used Indian corn from a farm stand, but at school a teacher brought in some delicious salted parched blue corn which she got at Whole Foods. I would recommend that you try to find parched corn. It is easier to crush, and we know it is safe to eat. The children will want to try the ground corn, and the second graders loved it. Indian corn used for decorating may be treated with preservatives.

My child tried grinding the corn. It is a little easier to pound it like the Native People and English did, (and messier, too!)

I learned all about how the Native People used corn from C. Keith Wilbur's wonderful book, "Indian Handcrafts."

Now go see the Indian corn necklaces Lisa and her daughter made on


gardenmama said...

what a beautiful way to grind corn, i love the pestle you used and the design you created for the mortar.

Bending Birches said...

what a meaningful task!

KeLLy aNN said...

Ya'll do the most interesting things!
I have the butter making on our list of things to do in the next month because of You! "}

jenny said...

Simply lovely. We'll definitely have to try this one! We're doing a Native American block right now :)

TwigandToadstool said...

What a wonderful thing to do with the kids! Beautiful that you made the tools yourself.
xo maureen

Lisa said...

my daughter loves to do this! she will spend hours grinding her indian corn. she likes to use it in her potions. the other day we made necklaces with the kernels. she has also made johnny cakes for us once.
have a great week

Beth said...

Thanks for your wonderful comments! did you make necklaces with the corn? Beth

Linda said...

Dear Beth,
Thank you so much for this wonderful post. We are busy with our Native American block at the moment and would love to try this:)
Take care