City's own pearl hominy is a discovered treasure

April 11, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The hominy cans usually sit on the grocery store shelf somewhere between the beans and shoe peg corn.

But ask what hominy is and most cooks won't know.

Yet to pearl hominy devotees, Baltimore is the source. The city's surviving vegetable packing house cans one product -- the pearl hominy that sets the standard for the Middle Atlantic region.

Pearl hominy is dried whole white corn kernels which have been cooked in water for long hours until they soften and form a pudding-like consistency. Its fans savor the dish for breakfast or as a dinner vegetable.

Hominy grits, pearl hominy's better known and more stylish cousin, is the dish so popular in the South. It differs from pearl hominy in that the corn is ground into coarse fragments and then cooked.

There is no sign on Mrs. Manning's cannery, a brown and yellow masonry building at 803 S. Clinton St. It sits on a gently rising hill that climbs up from the harbor in the area where the Highlandtown and Canton neighborhoods almost blend into one seamless stretch of rowhouses. Here is the home of pearl hominy.

Mrs. Manning's cannery is still run by founder Margaret Manning's grandchildren, Michael, John and Lena Manning, who have all worked here for decades.

"You'd be surprised how much people like hominy. They'll pay tremendous shipping costs to have it sent to them," says Lena Manning, who began her career here sometime during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Miss Lena, as she is called, is a one-woman staff who operates from her manual Royal typewriter and excellent memory. Her office relies upon file cabinets, rubber stamps, her smile and kindly manner with customers.

A framed oval photograph of Margaret Manning hangs on the wall. The firm's founder sits alongside husband Michael, who tended the engineering side of the plant. In 1904, Margaret Manning decided to can and market her hominy, baked beans, sauerkraut, plum pudding and date-and-nut bread under her name.

"My grandmother went to her own neighborhood grocers and asked them to carry her products. They did," says Michael Manning, her 70-year-old grandson. Over the years, his firm dropped the other products save for the signature item, whose lithographed label has not much changed since the 1920s.

Michael Manning is the chief hominist. He's all over the plant, checking the steam boilers and label machines, and listening for the ping-ping sound of inspected corn kernels dropping through a pipe.

"The secret of our product is the quality. I have employees who inspect every kernel of corn that goes into a can of our hominy," Michael Manning says.

Indeed he does. Several women sit in a small room where millions of dried corn kernels fall down a chute onto conveyor belts. The quest for white corn kernels keeps this staff of women, attired in hair nets and rubber gloves, pecking through the corn to spot and pluck out an errant yellow kernel. There are not many to be tossed out.

"Around the time of World War II we tried some yellow corn hominy but we couldn't give it away. Pearl hominy has to be cooked white corn," Michael Manning says.

Some 18 employees all work to cook and can hominy in the morning, then label and box it in the afternoon. Another Manning, John, runs the shipping department. Small neighborhood groceries and big accounts such as Giant, Safeway and Mars carry this Clinton Street staple.

Pearl hominy is one of those quirky Baltimore food items championed by a few and ignored by the rest. It rarely, if ever, turns up on restaurant menus, yet Manning's has trouble keeping up with the demand, especially in the winter and early spring.

"Hominy is one of the sacred items on our menu. We can't take it off," says Curtis Eargle, chef at the Maryland Club.

"We take [Manning's] hominy out of the can, wash it a little, cover it with half and half and reduce it slightly in a saucepan for our creamed hominy," the men's club chef says.

The 1932 cookbook, "Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland" compiled by F.P. Stieff, lists one hominy recipe from the old Hotel Rennert, at whose dining room Evening Sun columnist H.L. Mencken took his meals for many years. The recipe combines the hominy with cream, butter, sugar and salt. The 1963 "Maryland's Way" cookbook gives one pearl hominy formula. It DTC involves 22 hours of preparation time, including overnight soaking of the corn.

Yet despite Baltimore's penchant for the dish, hominy's origin is strictly Native American. The Algonquins are credited with its introduction.

"I personally like it with broiled scrapple that has a hard crust on the top. To me, that's a breakfast," says Michael Manning.

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