Friday, August 5, 2011

The Kitchen Mouse - The Corn in the Cornucopia

Originally published March 19, 1984

There were exactly 100 aboard the Mayflower when she left Southampton, England and two more were born on the nine week voyage. During the first 90 days in the new world, half their number were lost due to scurvy, starvation and illness.

What pulled the survivors through was Indian corn, the maize developed through trial and error by Indians from a wild grass native to the highlands of southern Mexico. Corn had been brought north by generations of pre-Columbians.

The colonists found a great store of corn left behind by some Indian tribe which had pulled up stakes and forgotten or forsaken a cache buried underground.

To grow their own corn, the Pilgrims learned agriculture Indian-style, which did not require felling trees or plowing earth. The Indians simply cut a strip of bark all the way around each tree where they wanted to grow corn. The trees died, so no leaves grew to block the sun. Instead of plowing, the Indians made a few scratches in the soil with pointed sticks and dropped their seeds (kernels left from previous harvests). Nobody bothered much about weeds. As for pests, the Indian boys made whistles and hung them on poles; when the wind blew through the whistles, the sound frightened away any birds and mice (mice? Oh gosh!) which might eat the seeds.

From a friendly Indian, the Plymouth colonists learned how to plant corn “when the oak trees’ leaves are as big as mouse ears” he said, “plant the kernels of corn. Put a small fish in between them. Round the soil into a little hill.”

The fish, probably menhaden, decomposed and fertilized the soil. For forty days after planting, every dog in the colony had a forepaw tied to it’s neck so it did not dig up the fish. Following the Indians counsel, the Pilgrims planted four kernels close together in a circle. Plantings were in small mounds a yard or more apart, the mounds running in rows a yard apart.

Fields planted Indian-style often yielded over 200 bushels of food per acre, five times the amount grown in English fields. But it was some years before the harvests were bountiful enough to eliminate hunger. New groups of colonists arrived and had to be supported. In the fall of 1621, 35 new people arrived. Some 67 came in 1622 and another large party in 1623. Each new arrival forced the earlier colonists to go on short rations.

The first corn was not ready for months. Several members of the Plymouth Colony were publicly whipped in the summer of 1622 for picking corn and eating it before it was ripe.

This Indian corn quickly became the mainstay of the colonies, both in Virginia and in Massachusetts.

The Kitchen Mouse’s first introduction to cornmeal was when he was served polenta at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York back in 1939.

Today's recipes:

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