Who knew corn had such a colorful history on its route into and out of Ohio?
|Lucy Long gives a demonstration on cooking Hominy Stir-fry Tuesday night for “The Journey of Corn to and from Ohio” program at the Wood County Historical Museum. (Photo: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tirbune)
Dr. Lucy Long, for one.
Long, founder of the Center For Food and Culture, and a research associate in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University, traced the journey of corn and led a lively discussion of the types of food we take on our journeys during an hour-long program Tuesday evening at the Wood County Historical Museum.
Her talk - and demonstration of how to make "Johnny Cakes" and hominy stir-fry - was offered in conjunction with "Journey Stories," a Smithsonian traveling exhibit that's on display through Sunday at the museum.
Over time, corn has come to be considered the all-American food.
We eat roasting ears at our Fourth of July picnics, we serve creamed corn at Thanksgiving dinner, and we devour Cracker Jacks at baseball games. No movie at the theater would be complete without popcorn.
Traveling in Europe, Long noticed that one can buy popcorn just about everywhere, but it always comes in packaging meant to look "American," often with a picture of Uncle Sam.
There are actually three different kinds of corn, "but most Americans are only familiar with sweet corn," said Long. "The corn introduced in Europe by Columbus was field corn, not sweet," and was viewed as food only for animals.
In Europe, wheat was always the grain of choice for human consumption.
Early American settlers' Johnny cakes "are actually a variation of flat cakes that many people would make in the British Isles," Long explained. "You didn't have to have yeast or some kind of leavening agent, so they were kind of flat.
"In Scotland they were most commonly made with oatmeal and water," and in Ireland mostly with potato.
Johnny cakes were a staple of people who didn't have a lot of money. Also, they were simple to make in a skillet, so ideal for travelers. That's why they're also known as "Journey cakes."
Settlers to the New World brought the idea of the flat cakes along with them, but tended to make it with corn meal because corn was what was available.
That doesn't mean they were happy about it, says Long.
"They tried not to eat corn. Corn was associated with savages," and again, as food for animals.
Not only that, but "people felt the food you ate affected your morality. It wasn't only a matter of being healthy, if you ate the wrong kind of food it would simulate sinfulness, being un-Christian, pagan."
There were also practical issues. Corn - if you rely on it as your sole grain - is lacking in vitamins. Eating it constantly can lead to the potentially fatal disease pellagra.
Central American Indians adopted the ingenious practice of soaking their corn "in some kind of alkaline solution and cooking it in ashes on the fire so it actually changed the chemical makeup. It actually made the corn healthier," as it now contains niacin.
In Mexico, corn tortillas are made out of that kind of corn.
In North America, that healthier corn started being called hominy.
"It didn't carry over into European-American foodways except in Appalachia," said Long, "and in the American South where it's used as grits."
The "Journey cakes" label originated in New England, whose west-bound settlers passed right through Ohio.
Along southern travel routes they were called hoe cakes, instead, "because you could put the cake on the flat part of the hoe and cook it over your fire."
Long demonstrated the making of Journey/Johnny cakes for her museum audience.
Her own recipe for journey cakes does use a rising agent - buttermilk and soda bread - so they differ a bit from flat cakes mentioned above.
"Pioneers made them both flat and with baking soda," said Long.
"I usually make journey cakes pretty much like pancakes, except that I use corn meal. In fact, those cheap little packages of cornbread mix work really well, especially on a cast-iron skillet with melted butter."
The other recipe she's sharing with Cook's Corner readers is for a traditional hominy fry "based on my father's Appalachian heritage. We grew up with fried hominy, and then I've experimented with using it in other ways."
Long uses two cans of hominy in her stir fry, one yellow and one white.
It matters what kind of white hominy you buy, she says.
"I usually look in the vegetable section. The Mexican foods section carries Mexican-style, which still contains the germ, but seems more alkaline-tasting to me."
The traditional way to make a hominy fry is to fry up some bacon, then take the bacon out, and fry the other ingredients in the bacon grease.
One herb that works really well in this dish, "although it's not authentic Appalachian, is basil. And parsley, definitely."
Feel free to toss in celery, carrots "or anything else you want to add."
You can then crumble up the bacon and add it back in. Hominy makes a great main dish if you put either sausage or bacon in it.
"Or you can use hominy as a side dish, with no meat at all. Some people put molasses on it.
Still others consider hominy a perfect breakfast food.
"Some people put syrup or honey on it for breakfast, but those are probably the same people that put sugar on their grits and obviously have no taste," Long said, teasingly.
1 can white hominy
1 can yellow hominy
1 onion (purple if possible)
1 clove garlic
2-3 small peppers (mix green, yellow, and orange—red tends to add a sweet flavor)
Herbs — parsley, basil, chives
Olive oil, lard, or other preferred oil for frying
Tofu, cut into small cubes
Use a skillet or frying pan. A wok works also. Cast-iron frying pan is traditional.
If using bacon or sausage — fry, then take out and save some of the fat for frying.
If using tofu, add olive oil for frying.
Chop onion into 1-inch squares (or slice into strips).
Chop or slice peppers in same way.
Fry onion and garlic until translucent; add peppers (and other optional vegetables); add drained hominy. Cook until hominy is heated through. Then mix in crumbled sausage or bacon. Stir in chopped herbs and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve as a side dish or with meat or tofu as a main dish for breakfast, lunch, or supper.
2 T. of melted butter
11⁄2 cup self-rising cornmeal mix
1⁄2 tsp. salt
11⁄2 cup buttermilk (or a little more)
Mix melted butter with self-rising cornmeal mix and salt. Mix, then pour in buttermilk (add a little more if you need to be more liquidy). When the skillet* sizzles, pour about 2 T. of batter. Turn over when bubbles rise.
Lots of variations:
You can add chopped onions and bacon bits or cheese — or sugar or honey — to the batter.
If you don’t have buttermilk, just add a tsp. of vinegar or lemon juice to milk.
* For best results, use a cast-iron skillet with melted butter.