AS THE SPANISH APPROACHED the Hopi village of Awatovi, residents poured a line of cornmeal in the sand as a sign to the invaders that they were not to enter. Not surprisingly, the Spanish ignored it, and a short battle ensued. Fortunately for the Hopi, the Spanish were in search of gold, not cornmeal, and they soon departed.
Cornmeal remains a vital ingredient in Hopi life, significantly in the wedding ritual, which requires the bride-to-be to grind a prodigious amount of it—she is expected to grind enough for a sweet cornmeal cake to be given to her intended (if he accepts it, they’re engaged), as a gift to her future in-laws (to determine her fitness as a wife), and for piki, the water-thin cornmeal cakes served at her wedding. Since the couple is expected to feed the entire reservation, between 500 and 1,500 pounds of cornmeal may be required. After the ceremony, the bride is given—you guessed it—bags of cornmeal for use in her married life.
Corn is indigenous to the Americas. It originated in Mexico roughly 9,000 years ago and 8,000 years later was grown throughout North America. Native Americans ground it into the cornmeal that their descendants introduced to English colonists, who called all recipes that included cornmeal “Indian,” as in Indian bread or Indian pudding.
The settlers, accustomed to lighter wheat flour, took to cornmeal reluctantly. As Betty Fussell writes in The Story of Corn (U. of New Mexico Press, 2004), “Not only was corn obdurately hard to pound even to coarse meal, but the meal refused to respond to yeast. No matter how they cooked it, corn paste lay flat as mud pies . . . and heaviness was a constant colonial complaint.” But since cornmeal was cheaper than wheat flour, the settlers, in the words of Waverly Root, “educated” themselves to like it.
The first cookbook published in America went by the spectacularly unwieldy name of American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country and all grades of life. By Amelia Simmons, an American orphan. Published in 1798, it was the first known book to marry English cooking methods with American ingredients. Although the book was printed in Connecticut, historians believe that Simmons was a Hudson Valley resident because of her use of specific ingredients and Dutch words. Her recipe for Johnnycakes was the first to replace wheat flour with cornmeal.
Cornmeal appeared in colonial cuisine in a variety of guises. Hoecakes, as Johhnycakes were also known, were flat cornmeal cakes cooked on a griddle or in the field by holding a hoe over the fire. George Washington loved Johnnycakes and was said to eat them everyday for breakfast. Hushpuppies—fried balls of cornmeal popular during the Civil War—got their name from Southern soldiers who tossed them to their dogs to keep them quiet. And cornpone, the cheapest of the concoctions (it consisted of just cornmeal and water, fried in fat) was beloved by Southerners, both rich and poor—LBJ called himself ‘Your old cornpone President” to distance himself from Ivy League elites.
Corn didn’t reach European shores until the Columbian Exchange, the trade of goods between the so-called Old and New Worlds. Because it was cheap and easy to grow, corn quickly spread across Europe and then via colonialism to Africa and India.
Nixtalization explains why Native Americans who subsisted on corn didn’t develop vitamin deficiencies.
Today, cornmeal mush, as it is unaffectionately called, is one of the world’s universal dishes—called grits in the American South, polenta in Italy, ugali in Kenya, and mamaliga in Romania. There is even a unique name for cornmeal mush in the Hudson Valley: suppawn. In The Hudson River Valley Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 1998), Waldy Malouf offers a basic recipe for suppawn that includes cornmeal, chicken stock, heavy cream and cheese. Taking it to “a level of sophistication that neither the American Indians nor the earlier settlers never dreamed of,” Malouf offers a decadent recipe for suppawn with lobster gratin; he offers a number of variations with additions like bacon, garlic and jalapeno peppers.
Vincent Barcelona, executive chef at Harvest on Hudson in Hastings, acknowledges polenta’s widespread popularity and notes that its appeal for him is as a comfort food. “Polenta is the food of my youth and what my mother served for dinner in many different ways.” he says. “Today it reminds me of my childhood and my mother’s love of cooking and us.”
Masa harina, used for Mexican tortillas and tamales, differs from cornmeal in that it’s treated with lime (calcium hydroxide, not the citrus fruit) or wood ash to release its niacin. The ancient process, called nixtalization, explains why Native Americans who subsisted on corn didn’t develop vitamin deficiencies, and why early Europeans, who didn’t treat the corn, did. (The process is unnecessary with modern cornmeal, which is fortified with vitamins and minerals.) Cornmeal continues to offer economical nutrition—it is a good source of carbohydrates and protein, and very low in fat, sodium and cholesterol.
The Hudson Valley is home to two freshly-milled sources of organic cornmeal: Phillipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, where volunteers grind corn on 2,400-pound, centuries-old French millstones; and Wild Hive Farm, where former beekeeper Don Lewis does “small-batch milling” using two 20-inch rotating granite slabs in a barn in Clinton Corners. (Both mills use organic corn, so concerns about genetically modified corn are moot—organic is, by definition, not genetically altered.)
Phillipsburg Manor cornmeal is available only at the mill—it’s not even in the gift shop, and often the cornmeal ground during the demonstration is the cornmeal you take home. It’s packed in three-pound cotton bags with a woodcut of the manor on the front. Wild Hive Farm cornmeal (in sturdy, brown 1.8-pound bags) is available at the cozy Wild Hive Cafe in Clinton Corners, as well as from its online store and local farmers’ markets. Fresh cornmeal should be refrigerated and used within three months, or frozen.
Wild Hive Farm cornmeals and flours have many fans in New York City and are used at Gramercy Tavern and in the bakery at Eataly, the Italian mega-market launched by Mario Batali, Lidia and Joe Bastianich, and Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti. John Sharp uses his cornmeal at Birdsall House in Peekskill, as does Agnes Devereaux at The Village Tearoom in New Paltz.
Late autumn and winter, when all the corn has been harvested and memories of fresh, buttery corn on the cob have faded, is the perfect time to indulge in the lusty flavor of cornmeal. Its earthy nuttiness is ideally suited to cold-weather dishes.