Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. XVI no. 1, March 1963
by Mary Earle Gould
Corn has been credited to the Indians of America. It was a species of grass growing wild and cultivated by the Indians and introduced to the Colonists when they came to America. It was called Indian corn and maize. It was the staple food of those early settlers and kept them from starvation in those first years. In England it was known as wheat and in Scotland as oats. It is mentioned in Genesis where it meant a cereal, such as wheat, oats or barley.
The lndians made a porridge from corn, ground coarsely and boiled in water. They called it samp – our hominy. The kernels were ground in a mortar which had a shallow cavity. One such is illustrated, in my museum, and stands about 27 inches high, crudely cut with a hand tool. Possibly flint, for the Indians had no such tools as were fashioned by the blacksmith. The first pestles were doubtless smoothed stones. It could have been a branch of a tree, grown at right angles. Later pestles were shaped with a pounding head, tapered to a knob handle.
The Colonists ground their corn for meal, first in mortars and later in mills, operated by horse power, water power or by windmills. An ingenious way of using a pestle in a mortar was to fasten it to a bough of a tree and let the bough take the weight. The pestle was pulled down to pound the kernels and the bough lifted it up again.
The meal was cooked in water and made into pudding, called Indian pudding, hasty pudding or mush. It took a slow cooking, belying the name of hasty. Indian pudding and milk was eaten three times a day in those early years, perhaps fried mush was not known!
The meal was made into a cake and taken on the winter journeys to market. Several pungs full of neighbors joined in the trip. The cakes which were carried took the name of journey cakes. That soon became shortened to jonny cake and to our present-day Johnny cake. Cakes were made into a stiff dough and baked on a board propped up in front of the fire. The cakes were called bannock cakes from the Scottish name of bonnach, which were made of oatmeal or barley and baked on a griddle. The board of the bannock cakes was called a bannock board. In the South, the cakes were baked on the head of a hoe with the handle protruding into the room. These were called hoe cakes.
The early species of corn had black or dark red kernels. The golden or yellow kernels came later.
Corn for popping was a different species, with smaller kernels. This was grown especially for popping. Governor Winthrop of Boston wrote in 1630 that when corn was “parched” it turned inside out and was “white and floury.”
In the fall, the ears of corn that were to be saved for seed or popping were traced. That was the process of turning back the husks and braiding many ears together. These were hung to dry in the shed or attic, to be used in the spring of the year. Corn for popping was shelled as it was used in winter-time, in the open fire.
More than this, corn had other uses. When the kernels were boiled in a weak solution of lye, the covering was removed and the result was hull corn.
The stalks were saved and were used green as fodder for cattle. They were used as thatch, for fuel and in making baskets and door mats. The husks were shredded in the hetchel and used to stuff chairs, saddles and mattresses as well as for packing. And a corn cob pipe was the general thing in the long ago – across the water and in this country.
Chemists have extracted starch from corn and this is used in puddings and for laundry.
The native country of corn is uncertain, but it was known in Asia, Africa and China. It is claimed that Columbus introduced it into Europe in 1520, taking it from America in 1492.
Corn has provided mankind with the greatest amount of any planted seed over the years.