Early gripes about grit

Cornmeal: A pioneer staple (which the pioneers didn't much like) can add much to the texture and taste of breads today.

October 20, 1999|By Elizabeth Evans | Elizabeth Evans,Orange County Register

It's hard to believe now, in these days of pricey polenta and trendy tamales, but cornmeal was once reviled by early European immigrants to North America.

Raised on wheat flour, colonists couldn't stomach the sandlike meal made from corn. Wheat flour made such soft, pretty cakes and bread. Corn products were leaden in comparison. No yeast could make the stuff rise, and cooked in primitive ovens or on skillets -- sometimes even hoes -- set in the ashes of a fireplace, these biscuits were more like hardtack than the pillowy, chewy bread 17th-century Europeans were used to.

Even pioneers, who should have been used to the hard life, found living on cornmeal almost unbearable. It was, according to Betty Fussell's book "The Story of Corn" (North Point Press, 1992, $18), the grain of last resort.

"As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which is only one-third the price of wheaten flour," Fussell quotes from a letter written by pioneer woman Rebecca Burlend. "Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it."

To such delicate palates, bread made with cornmeal was a step down on the culinary ladder. But because it was cheap and plentiful, it was a staple in these new Americans' larder.

Pone, ashcakes, hoecakes, journeycakes, johnnycakes, slapjacks, spoonbreads, dodgers were all humble and descriptive names for the hearty, if underappreciated, variations on what we now call corn bread.

Yet even before it was being dismissed by displaced housewives as just one more of the indignities of frontier living, cornmeal had become an emblem of American independence from Europe.

"These Anglicizations of hoe-cake and johnny-cake took hold early and hung on like symbols, like Yankee Doodle, of rebel identity," writes Fussell.

She goes on to say that Benjamin Franklin, that most erudite, and somewhat gluttonous, of patriots, defended corn just after the Stamp Act of 1766. When a British blowhard said American colonists couldn't give up tea because of the indigestibility of the dry Indian corn they were forced to eat, Franklin countered:

"Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world. Samp, hominy, succotash and noke-hock made of it are so many pleasing varieties; and that johnny or hoe cake hot from the fire is better than a Yorkshire muffin."

Of course Franklin's poetry is nothing compared with the American Indian valuation of corn. According to John F. Mariani in "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink" (Hearst Books, 1994, $19.95), corn was brought to the territory that is now the United States from Mexico more than two millenniums ago. It is integral to the rituals, religion and tables of many indigenous people. Zunis dusted their doorways with it in a vain attempt to keep away the conquistadors, and Hopis cultivated at least 20 varieties, each with a different symbolic meaning.

Corn bread was even served at the first Thanksgiving. Corn pone -- from the Algonquin Indian word apan, meaning baked -- made with cornmeal, salt and water, is the earliest known version of corn bread.

To say simply that cornmeal is woven into the tapestry of Americana is to understate its importance. It can be argued that it's the paste that has kept the inhabitants of this continent from going hungry.

Pretty high praise for a crop that is, according to Fussell, botanically a grass, with kernels that are in fact a strange fruit that converts sugars into starch, in direct opposition to most fruits, which convert starch into sugar.

Still, cornmeal, which today is most often made by grinding the hard kernels in huge steel rollers to remove the husk, is often perceived as a rather ordinary ingredient. Used incorrectly, it does have some rather unpleasant qualities. But used correctly, it's the difference between clay that's been rough-hewn into simple but serviceable dishes, and fine porcelain that surpasses its lowly components to become a timeless work of art.

Cornmeal can be the basis for something more than that easy quick bread you learned to make from a just-add-water-and-eggs mix. Given the right attention, it can produce breads that are as unique and wonderful as corn itself.

The thing to remember about corn is that unlike wheat flour, it imparts a definite flavor. For instance, when the nutty sweetness of cornmeal is mixed with rye and wheat flour, it produces something called "thirded bread" by 19th-century cookery writer Lydia Child. As quoted in Fussell's book, she says, "Some think the nicest bread of all is one third Indian [cornmeal], one third rye and one third flour."

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