Grain and Fire

Rebecca Sharpless’s Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South is on sale this week wherever ebooks and books are sold.

Sharpless weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and merged in the economies, cultures, and foodways of the South to create what we know as the southern baking tradition.

Please enjoy the following excerpt taken from chapter one of Grain and Fire.

While Southeastern Native American women gathered and grew their families’ sustenance, a new plant was making its way northeast from Mexico. Zea mays, known in English as corn or maize, was the product of agriculture: human intervention in its growth. For centuries before Europeans appeared, Native American women sowed corn every spring. They cultivated it using tools made of wood, stone, or bone, then harvested, dried, and pounded it into meal. In sum, they participated in the cycle of events that sustained most human life in Native America for a thousand years: growing and processing the most favored baked food of generations of southerners.

Corn botanical illustration showing stalk, kernel, and ear. iStock.

Corn arrived fairly late in the story of humans. Botanical geneticists generally agree that corn descended from a wild grain called teosinte and that it developed as the result of plant breeding by humans in the highlands of southwestern Mexico perhaps around 7000 BCE. From its Mexican origins, corn spread throughout the Americas, stopping only where the climate became too cold, dry, or wet. Corn, amazingly adaptable, grows in almost any moderate climate (tolerating a growing season as short as 120 days), and neither drought nor frost will completely kill it. In milder climates, staggered planting allows for two harvests. Because it has no tap root, it can thrive in shallow soils. Every corn plant is extremely productive. A stalk emerges from a single seed and produces two or three seedpods, known as ears, each with hundreds of kernels of grain. It stores easily for long periods of time. Ripe corn can stay in the shuck, or outer husk, indefinitely and once dry will remain edible for years. And, unlike industrially produced corn, these early grains provided good, though incomplete, nutrition—vitamins A, C, and E and carbohydrates. The Native Americans also discovered that soaking corn in water mixed with lye, made from ashes, made it more nutritious. (Today we call the process nixtamalization, and we know that it releases niacin, vitamin B3, from the corn. We most often see lye-treated corn as hominy and as grits. The Native Americans figured it out without chemistry labs.) With all of these attributes, it is no wonder that corn became the centerpiece of the southeastern American diet.

The marvelous grain arrived in north-central Florida by 750 CE, eastern Tennessee by perhaps 800 CE, and as far north as the Chesapeake by 900 CE. When Europeans arrived at the end of the sixteenth century, Native American women were growing corn almost everywhere in the South. While the men still hunted and gathered, southeastern Native Americans drew increasing amounts of their nutrition from the plants that women purposefully cultivated and stored for future use.

As corn increased in significance to southeastern Native Americans, it took on strong cultural meanings. Sacred stories demonstrate the importance of corn to southern Native Americans. Perhaps the best-known tale is that of the Cherokee, in which Selu, the Corn Mother, produced corn from her blood. The Cherokee used the story of Selu to explain their division of labor, in which women bore responsibility for almost all agricultural tasks. Other Natives across the South also acknowledged the significance of corn with numerous rites asking their gods for fertility and celebrating harvest. In Mississippi, each Natchez bride presented a stalk of corn to her new husband as part of their pledges to one another. During their fertility rites, the Creek offered the gods thick cakes made of corn. Spanish observer Pietro Martire d’Anghiera noted in 1530, “The natives are convinced that their prayers for harvests will be heard, especially if the cakes are mixed with tears.”

People worked diligently to adapt Mexican corn to their best advantage. From region to region, it varied dramatically: tall, short, many-colored, early- or late-ripening, with eight, ten, or twelve rows of kernels, and everything in between. Many varieties flourished with specific soils and rainfall, so that corn grown on the Atlantic coast differed from that in eastern Texas, for example. Planting several types worked to the Native Americans’ benefit: the labor required for harvest could be spread out over time, and if one kind failed to thrive, another might produce plentifully. In the South, corn fell generally into two categories: flint and dent. Flint corns are harder, ripen earlier, and keep better than dent. Dent corns are softer and ripen later, and they were historically preferred for cornmeal.

The corn of the fifteenth century was not the sweet, tender delicacy that we enjoy during the summer. The only time that Native Americans ate corn fresh off the cob was when it was still green. Women sliced the soft, milky corn off the cob and pounded it. They then wrapped the juicy grains in leaves from the stalk and boiled the bundles. The appearance of green corn in early summer touched off annual celebrations. In Louisiana, the Great Corn Feast featured “shouts of joy,” a “general feast,” games, and dancing through the night. For the Cherokee, the Green Corn Festival marked a time of renewal and reconciliation, with the ritual cleaning of their towns’ public spaces. Women also scrubbed their houses, washed their cooking utensils, and disposed of ashes and leftover food. The Cherokee fasted, then feasted and danced.

After the green corn celebrations, Native Americans settled down to wait for the grain to ripen. As the kernels darkened and the tassels dried, they harvested the ripe ears by hand, simply pulling them from the stalk. For the most part, Native Americans refrained from processing their corn until they were ready to use it. Once it is ground, corn turns rancid quickly, so Natives either left it in on the cob to dry or parched it immediately after grinding. Across the South, Native Americans built structures dedicated to keeping corn dry and free from would-be thieves like rats and raccoons. The Choctaw, for example, stored grain in particular edifices raised eight feet from the ground. Others kept their corn in pits in the ground, lined with bark and layered with dry grass, bark, and dirt. At some point, they would remove the husks and strip the corn from the cob, a process later known as shelling. Whatever their means, Native Americans carefully provided for their families’ continued sustenance.

The onerous task of grinding corn, like nuts, was women’s work, and it consumed many hours each day. Sometimes women lightened their labor by doing it in the company of others, creating a rhythm as each worked at her separate mortar. Englishman John Lawson commented, “The Savage Men never beat their Corn to make Bread; but that is the Womens Work, especially the Girls, of whom you shall see four beating with long great Pestils in a narrow wooden Mortar; and every one keeps her stroke so exactly, that ’tis worthy of Admiration.”

Rebecca Sharpless is professor of history at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.