SEPTEMBER 2000 ISSUE
Although the cook books abounded, one may get the best picture of home cooking from the many fund-raising cook books by local women. Clearly they tell us that at least part of a woman’s reputation lay with her pickles. The following recipe and its many counterparts across the nation was increasingly common after the turn of the century. This may be done open kettle style—packed in hot sterilized jars and sealed immediately. The high level of acid and sugar are preservatives, and prevent dire consequences. Or you may submerge the filled and capped jars in a large canning kettle with boiling water over the tops, and cook for 20 minutes after the water has returned to a boil.
Corn Salad (sometimes called Corn Relish or Chutney)
Portland Woman’s Exchange Cook Book, 1913
Put all together and boil one hour. - Mrs. Henry B. Joy.
The following recipe is typical of both the corn belt and New England, and perhaps the South as well. You can tell by the large amounts it produces that Corn Oysters were much beloved (we have made an entire meal of them, served with hot maple syrup and perhaps sliced tomatoes on the side). Although this recipe isn’t clear on the frying fat, I would probably suggest lard for both historical authenticity, flavor, and low-grease fritters (lard takes high temperatures without burning), or a combination of lard and butter. You may prefer oil. Feel free to half the recipe if you are dieting.
Corn Fritters (a.k.a. Corn Oysters)
The Buckeye Cookbook
“To one quart raw sweet corn (fifteen common-sized ears) add yolks of three eggs and scant three-fourths pint cracker-crumbs; if corn is not juicy use less, making batter only stiff enough to drop from a spoon. Beat very thoroughly, season with salt and pepper, add well-frothed whites and drop with teaspoon and fry; turn out and drain... Serve hot, using the fritter doily in dish, or place an ordinary napkin under and over. Some add to this batter a piece of salt codfish, size of a silver dollar, shredded very fine, as this gives the peculiar oyster taste, and hence the name sometimes given them of Corn Oysters. Above proportions make six dozen fritters, and are very easily made.
The food of a nation
What we have too-often forgotten is that over millennia past Native Americans were great hybridizers, and had, from region to
region, developed many kinds of corn they could grow in accommodation to the length of growing season, altitude, rain and sun, soil type, etc. These included not only the popcorn and sweet corn we know and love today, but also hominy corn (unusually large kernel, usually hard), flint corn (hard), dent corn (soft), and flour corn (soft). There were early ripeners and later ripeners, often grown in a variety of colors and used not only for nutritive purposes but also for ritualistic ones. Corn in its many forms (and beans) was the mainstay of Indian one-dish meals—soups, stews, and dumplings. They were grown in the most sophisticated agricultural system the world has ever seen: planted in hills of mounded soil the corn stalks provided supports for the climbing pole beans, which in turn provided nitrogen for the corn roots (nitrogen-fixing) as large-leafed squash and pumpkins sprawled over the ground where they kept weeds out and moisture in.
It wasn’t long before seventeenth century settlers learned how to grow and eat it. One of their earliest dishes, samp porridge (adapted from a Native American dish), combined New World hominy corn and beans, but added the root vegetables and preserved meats brought from Europe. By all old accounts and recent recreations, it was delicious and the backbone of daily dining at times when there was little time to cook.
I do believe that if it hadn’t been for corn, Europeans would never have colonized this immense continent. Corn was so easy to grow, needed so little care, stored so well and produced so much per acre (especially compared to wheat) that it allowed frontier
families enough time to do all the other things they had to do—clearing fields, building structures, fences, roads, planting. Small wonder, then, that one sees the ear of corn on state flags, and celebrated in mid-western grandiose “corn palaces” elaborately decorated entirely in patterns of colored corn.
With corn so abundant, American ingenuity followed the enterprise of earlier Indians and put it to many uses. English colonists called it “Indian,” thus implying the use of corn meal in Indian Pudding, Indian bread (corn breads), Rye’n’Indian Bread. “Corn Oysters” were sweet corn fritters, fried and shaped like the bivalve. Sweet corn dried or parched (roasted) kept the flavor alive for a year of snacking out of hand or in wonderful corn puddings. And in a sense, raising hogs on corn or distilling corn liquor (white lightening) were simply other ways to preserve one’s crop.
As Americans left their farms and populated the cities, a barrage of new products made their way into new urban homes and lifestyles. By the late 1800s, cornstarch and corn syrups (Karo) were manufactured commercially, packaged under brand names, and sold in local stores to housewives. At the same time, the producers of kitchenwares were turning out cast-iron corn stick pans in a variety of sizes, elaborate stove-top popcorn
makers (some cranked for more efficient shaking), and corn graters that sliced through the kernels and scraped the pulp into a bowl, all in one motion. Cook book authors were quick to respond to the desires of home canners, and churned out endless variations of chutneys and relishes; indeed one sees the inevitable corn relishes among the corn chowders, salads, stews, soups, fritters and puddings.
At first only the farmers had known sweet corn at its best—the sooner eaten after picking the sweeter it would be, as corn sugars change to starch quickly. Folk wisdom is the key: “the only way to eat sweet corn is to get a large pot of water boiling on the stove. Go out to the field and pick what you need. Then run back to the house as fast as you can, and if you stumble, go back for fresh.” Recent hybrids hold their sugar longer, and have made it possible for city dwellers to enjoy something closer to the real thing.
Throughout, sweet corn maintained its own mystiques. Edward S. Wilson’s “Corn on the Cob,” one of the essays in his The Poetry Of Eating (1908), declared, “Eating green corn has a higher mission. It puts one as close to nature as lying in a bed of lilies. One cannot taste the sunshine anywhere, as when he seizes a juicy ear of corn in his eager fists, and goes at it with an open countenance and a happy smile, ripping off the rows of sweetened dews and dawns, till his mouth and soul reek with
delight …The main thing is the recklessness in eating it, the joyous abandon.... Dear reader, join the soul, and eat corn as a sparrow flies to heaven, with a song in your mouth.”
With those glorious thoughts in mind, you may wish to partake of the many dishes of Wilson’s time. The following recipes are only a sampling of some of the many wonderful tastes of summer. [ Top Left Column ]