Winter Tea Party winners: Angela's book,THE SCARLET COAT, will go to: Print copy- Andrea Stephens; e-book copy - Catherine Wight!

LUCY REYNOLDS has a table topper quilt on the way, and winners of the Valentine Ebook Collection are: Deanna Stevens, Caryl Kane, Anne Payne and Winnie Thomas. With thanks to all who joined in!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Corn: An Essential Colonial Food

Iowa cornfield
Today we’re so used to eating foods made from corn and seeing large fields of corn spreading across the countryside that we take this humble grain for granted. Have you ever wondered how corn ended up becoming such an important crop in today’s economy—not only for food, but also for oil, fuel, and other products? Well, today we’re going to take a look at this very useful staff of life.

When European settlers landed on the shores of North America, they brought with them the grains they were used to eating, including wheat, oats, rye, and spelt. But they quickly began to add a number of unfamiliar foods eaten by the native peoples they encountered. One of the first was Indian corn, or maize. The colonists soon learned from their Indian neighbors how to plant, harvest, and cook this grain. Corn was relatively easy to grow and very productive, and by the 18th century it was the most widely eaten grain in many of the colonies. Not only did people eat the breads, mush, hominy, grits, and porridge they could make from corn, but they also fed the tops and leaves of the plants to their cattle during the winter months. By the last half of the 18th century corn had become a lucrative commodity for export as well.

White dent corn
The most popular variety of corn in the American colonies was called gourdseed. The plant grew 10 to 18 feet tall and produced 2-3 ears per stalk, each from 7 to 8 inches long. The kernels, called “white dent,” or “she-corn,” were white, deep, and broad, with ends that appeared to be dented when they were completely dried. Farmers came to favor this variety because it produced more grain per acre than wheat and could also be stored longer. It was easier to harvest than wheat as well, and a huge advantage was that it didn’t have to be threshed before it could be ground. One farmer could produce 5 to 10 acres of corn working the land with hand tools or 20 acres if he had a horse and plow.

Corn hills
To prepare the soil for planting, after the threat of frost passed and the soil warmed, farmers would plow furrows across their fields at right angles to create a grid pattern. The distance between the intersection of the furrows depended on the variety of corn to be grown and the quality of the soil. For large varieties like gourdseed, they spaced the furrows so they crossed each other from four to eight feet apart, with six feet being the most common. From 3 to 6 kernels were then pushed into the soil 2 or 3 fingers’ breadth deep at each intersection, and after the plants emerged they were thinned to 2 to 4 plants per hill. Some farmers hilled the earth before planting it, while others planted first, and then built up hills around the base of the plants as they grew. Native Americans planted beans and squash in the hills alongside the corn, and some colonists adopted this practice. The cornstalk supported the bean vines, while the beans provided nitrogen for the corn, and the large squash leaves shaded out the weeds.

Corn shocks
Native Americans set aside a section of their cornfields from which they harvested the “green corn” when the kernels reached their full size but before they dried and became hard, just as we eat sweet corn today. They roasted the ears or made green corn soup to eat during their Green Corn festivals. Some colonists may also have eaten some of their corn this way, but they harvested most of their crop later, after the kernels were dry enough to store and to grind into meal. They cut off the tassels and tops of the cornstalks above the highest ear as soon as they began to dry and the plant didn’t need them anymore—this is often done today too. Bundled into shocks, they were cured in the sun for a couple of days before being stored for use as fodder for livestock in the winter. The blades, or leaves of the plant were also pulled from the stalk, cured, and stored for fodder when they dried.

Corncrib
The ears were left on the stripped cornstalk until the ears dried enough to store. One acre yielded about 15 bushels. Of course, with today’s varieties and farming practices, 1 acre produces a great deal more corn, but during the colonial period this was an excellent yield. Once harvested, the ears, often still in the husk, were generally stored in a corncrib made of saplings, slats, or notched logs, with a floor a few feet off the ground to provide plenty of ventilation so the corn wouldn’t get moldy. On some smaller farms corncribs are still used, and I remember the one we had on the farm where I grew up. If kept dry, corn stores well in the husk, but many farmers preferred to remove them for storage.

Corn sheller
Before the corn could be ground, the kernels had to be shelled off the cob either by hand, or with a metal scraper. Shelling corn by hand is a miserable task, let me assure you! I remember shelling popcorn as a teenager with my church youth group, and we ended up with very sore and blistered hands. Scraping the ears wouldn’t be a fun job either, but thankfully ingenious inventors developed hand-cranked corn shellers in the 19th century. Lester E. Denison from Middlesex County, Connecticut, holds the honors for producing the first modern sheller, which he patented on August 12, 1839. It was a freestanding, hand-operated machine that drew the cob through a series of metal-toothed cylinders to strip off the kernels. Kudos to him for coming up with a way to save your hands! No matter which method you use, however, 2 barrels of ears produce about one barrel of shelled corn.

Have you ever husked or shelled corn or seen it done? If so, please share your experience!
~~~
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers, an author, editor, and publisher, and a lifelong student of history. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Her novel Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with bestselling author Bob Hostetler, won ForeWord Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases in Spring 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


15 comments:

  1. Corn! My favorite!!! Yes, I have husked and used a hand scraper to shell corn. Growing up in southern Indiana I've seen plenty of corn! I worked in the garden with my grandfather until he died when I was nine. He always planted squash in the corn hills. I remember, when I was about four, him teaching me the difference between morning glories (bad) and squash flowers (good). I lived close to Spring Mill State Park where they had a settler's village and a working grist mill. We had family reunions there. I always loved watching the dried corn being ground into meal by the huge stone wheels at the mill.

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    1. Andrea, I grew up in central Indiana. We're both born and bred Hoosiers!! When I was real little, we still had threshing machines coming around to harvest the wheat. We didn't hill our corn and plant squash and beans with it, but I think that's an ingenious way to do it. I still remember the threshing machines coming around to the farms to thresh the wheat after it was harvested, but we never bundled our corn into shocks, sad to say. I love the old ways the Native Americans and early farmers used!

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  2. Great post Joan! I am not sure I would want to eat green corn soup, shudder, doesn't sound very appetizing.

    Yes, I have husked and scraped corn off the cob many times. We used to get a big truck load of corn on the cob from a farmer friend of my hubby's family when our sons were little. His 5 sisters, mother and aunt joined us to harvest the corn, even the young children helped. We set up an assembly line of sorts...several husked the corn, then others cut the corn off the cob, others put the cut corn in a pot to blanch and then others filled bags to freeze, separating it for each helper. A long, tiring day to be sure but very satisfying knowing we had corn in the freezer for the winter.


    Blessings, Tina

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    1. Tina, I think green corn soup was made with corn when it's at the stage that we eat sweet corn. So it should taste pretty much like corn chowder, which wouldn't be too bad. I've processed and frozen corn many times, too, and even though it is a lot of work, you sure appreciate pulling a bag out to cook for dinner in the middle of winter. It's like a bit of summer right on your plate!

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    2. Joan, ok, we love sweet corn. It was the name, "green corn" that got me.
      Blessings, Tina

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    3. Tina, from the descriptions I've read, "green" just meant that it wasn't dried for grinding yet. Now I'm thinking I should have included a recipe for corn chowder!

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  3. I love corn but can't eat anymore!! I have an allergy to all corn and corn products. When you learn to read labels (when you have allergies or something) you can see what all has some sort of corn product in it. It's called many different things. I remember growing corn but it never did very well any year that I did try to grow it.

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    1. Bev, I'd just hate not being able to eat sweetcorn! They do use corn in a whole lot of products that you might not expect, corn oil, corn starch, cornmeal, etc. It makes it really hard when you're allergic!

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  4. Wow, I lived in an area surrounded by orchard, corn and rice fields and I never knew all of this about corn. Of course, my dad only worked in the orchards and trapped in the rice fields. I remember shucking corn, but that's all. I also remember finding worms in some of them.
    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Oh, I remember finding worms in corn too, chappydebbie. And black fungus. Yuck! Thanks for dropping by!

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  5. We love corn in many of its forms, including spoon-bread for breakfast.

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    1. I love it too, Janet, especially sweetcorn, boiled and slathered with butter and salt. Yum!

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  6. Joan, I'm also a Hoosier. Thanks for this historical look at corn. On another topic, I'm looking for a Mennonite weaver in Lancaster Co PA who made uniforms and blankets for the Continental Army. I've looked everywhere and can't find him. Any ideas?
    Karen Rink, DAR Palatinate Chapter, Germany

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  7. Karen, where did you live in Indiana? I grew up in central Indiana, but now live right up by the Michigan border.

    The Continental Army got clothing and other goods from many different suppliers depending on where they were camped at the time. I haven't run across a specific Mennonite weaver in any of my research, but I wouldn't be surprised there was one and maybe more. The nonresistant churches like Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Quakers contributed goods to the army because of their commitment to loving and serving their neighbors and also to be obedient to the government's laws as long as it didn't violate their conscience. Where did you find out about this weaver?

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  8. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.

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