Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Culture of Corn

The preservation of traditional crops is more than just saving seeds. It includes the preservation of the recipes and stories that earned those crops a treasured place in local culture. Many individuals and groups have recognized the value of perpetuating old-timey varieties, and it’s encouraging to see what they’ve accomplished. But those efforts can be tenuous. The story of Cherokee flour corn is a good example.

Back in the 1980s, Western Carolina University Chancellor Cotton Robinson was involved in research to restore the original strain of Cherokee flour corn. As I recall, the Cherokee Boys Club participated in raising the corn and marketing the cornmeal. I remember buying a bag of it, and discovered that it made the best cornbread I even ate. If you were to bring me a bag of that cornmeal right now, I’d drop everything else, pull out the old black skillet and bake some cornbread.

I hope that the recovery of Cherokee flour corn hasn’t fallen by the wayside. Fresh-baked cornbread is one of life’s great pleasures, and Cherokee flour corn made it even better. I’ve not found another cornmeal that comes close. In searching for the latest news on Cherokee flour corn, I did find this description posted by "blueflint" on a message board:

[The Cherokee] late pre-history corn culture was mostly based on their white flour corn, which they are very well known for and this was grown through out the Cherokee lands. If you have never seen this corn grow, it will average 12' tall but in good soil can reach 18'. This is an 8 row white flour corn that grinds silky smooth.

My search also led to a business established to grow and market old Southern crops. Ten years ago, Glenn Roberts founded Anson Mills in order to "grow, harvest and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically, and re-create ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War." The entire story, at , is worth a read. By searching for the ideal corn to produce grits, Roberts might have saved one variety from extinction. According to the Anson Mills website:

The corn was revered for its high mineral and floral characteristics, and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger's field near Dillon, South Carolina in 1997, and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998. Known as "Carolina Gourdseed White," the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600's. Gourdseed is a classic Southern dent corn, soft and easy to mill.

Preservation of the old varieties is so much more than just botany or agriculture or cuisine. To preserve the old crops is also to preserve language, beautiful and powerful language. I posted a piece on this last year, and it has some relevance to the current discussion:
One of the last conversations I had with someone born prior to the twentieth century was with Robert Lee Franks (1897-2000). While transcribing the 1990 interview, I recognized the poetry in his way of speaking. As he talked about growing corn, he spoke in the gentle rhythms of the past.

Here’s what Robert told me.

Making Corn

It took lots of ground to make corn,
The way the old people farmed it
On these hillsides,
Four foot apart the rows,
Hills of corn four foot apart.
Now that takes a big patch
To make anything.

We grew the Pigeon White, they call it,
And the Hamburg Red Speckled for a long time.
And we got off from that on to a corn
That was mixed a little bit with sweet corn,
Made a great big long grain
Sort of like Hickory King
But it would get ripe quicker.

Sometimes we’d grow a little wheat
And make our flour,
But not often, though.
We just traded corn
For most everything.

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