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.
Spoon Bread, 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.
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.
Do you ever use cooking to teach history?
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