When we study early American History, I include as many colonial games and hands-on activities for middle school as possible as a way to bring Colonial America to life.
Recently, while learning about the Native Americans, we spent some time learning about the support they gave to the colonists, specifically their experience in growing corn, a crucial food staple. As part of our lessons, we researched various corn recipes and made a few together. It was a great way to learn about history and work on an important life skill.
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Corn, originating in Central America, most likely Southern Mexico, played an important role in the settling of America. In fact, once introduced by the Wampanoag Indians, corn, or maize, became a lifesaver to the colonists. Throughout early American history, corn remained an important part of the daily diet.
Over time, the Native Americans realized that a surplus of corn could be grown, harvested and dried without harming the earth and would help sustain them during times of lean hunting. Also, dried and ground corn was the perfect food to travel with, first in baskets and then in sacks.
Tisquantum (Squanto) taught the Pilgrims how to plant and harvest corn, which was then used in various dishes like stews, puddings and breads. As the settlers moved and expanded further into the New World, corn stayed a diet staple and quickly became the highlight of new regional dishes.
Cornmeal Recipes Shared with the Colonists
Today, we use cornmeal to create fluffy, sweetened bread. However, back when corn was the main grain, there were larger varieties of flavors and textures.
One of the most famous corn recipes throughout history is the Johnnycake, or corncake/hoecake, which was taught to the original setters by the Pawtuxet Indians. Over the years this cornmeal flatbread has been baked in an open fire among the ashes, in ovens and over a flame or stove in a cast iron skillet.
- 1 ¼ cups cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½-1 teaspoon salt
- 1½ cups boiling water
- 2 TBSP bacon drippings or oil
- Combine all of the dry ingredients.
- Gradually add the boiling water to the dry ingredients, mixing with a spoon until moistened. The consistency should be thick (instead of runny) but should still be able to slide off the spoon. You may need more or less boiling water to achieve this consistency.
- Heat oil or bacon drippings in a cast iron skillet or non-stick pan. You don’t want the cakes to stick.
- Spoon the batter into the pan, using one large spoonful for each cake. Once the edges begin to brown and become firm, flip over to cook the other side. If needed, you can add a couple of
drops of oil to the top of the cake before turning it over. Cook until the other side is done. You can press them down to keep an even thickness.
- Move them to a platter.
This is a moist cornmeal dish is creamy like a pudding and rises like a souffle. Like many corn recipes, it is believed to have roots in Native American history, where it was known as suppone or suppawn. It can be a hearty side dish, yet is sweet enough to be a dessert.
After Sarah Routledge published recipes for it in her 1847 cookbook, The Carolina Housewife, it quickly became a household staple. It continues to be eaten today, with many variations developed over the years. However, cornmeal remains the main ingredient.
- 1 ½ cups cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tsp sugar
- ½ cups boiling water
- 2 TBSP butter, cut in small pieces
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 5 eggs, beaten
- ¾ c corn kernels
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Preheat the oven to 350°
- Grease a 2-quart baking dish
- Combine the cornmeal, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the boiling water and butter and mix with a whisk or hand mixer until moistened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the milk and beaten eggs to the cornmeal mix, and beat for another 5 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken. Mix in the corn kernels. Allow the mixture to cool for about 5 minutes, and then add the baking powder, mixing on low, until well incorporated.
- Pour the mixture into the baking dish and bake at 30 to 45 minutes until the center has set.
- Serve immediately
Try both of these recipes! Download the PDF (Recipes – Johnnycakes and Spoon Bread) with both recipes.
American Indian Farming
Along with corn, the Native Americans also developed and introduced the concept of symbiotic planting, with the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash). The tall stalks of corn were the support for the bean vines. The corn also shielded the squash at the base of the plant, which acted as ground cover and gave protection and support to the roots.
These three plants were the basis of many dishes in history. One of the most common was succotash, which meant “boiled corn” from the Naragansett word “msickquatash.” This came in an assortment of recipes, not just the mix of lima beans and corn that we know today.
This colorful succotash recipe from Martha Stewart celebrates the flavors of the harvest.
History in the Kitchen
While in the kitchen cooking with your kids, share with them the interesting history of corn and why it was a diet staple. Teach them about the amazing knowledge the Native American Indians had of the land and crops as well as the important role they played in the colonist’s survival.
Other Early American History Activities for Middle School
- 6 Covered Wagon Learning Activities
- Lewis and Clark Animal Discovery Activities
- 5 Easy Colonial America Map Activities for Kids
- Discover the 13 Colonies ~ An Amazing Study Guide
- Using Videos to Teach Early American History
Check out my American History Pinterest board for more fun activities!