Our first memory of corn is invariably of gnawing it off the cob typewriter-style, hot butter running down our chins in a cathartic, napkin-soaking release. However, manners aside, eating corn on the cob is barely scratching the surface.
Suitable as fuel, feed and food, Zea mays is a workhorse of the plant kingdom, and at least in North America, it has been for a very long time. Corn served a number of important uses for the continent’s original inhabitants. Madeline Matson writes in “Food in Missouri: A Cultural Stew,” the Osage people “boiled or roasted on the cob, or dried after cooking for storage.”
Americans Indians spent hours each day pounding dried corn into meal, which was then worked into cakes or a cereal-like preparation called samp. Matson notes that corn had been cultivated on the continent since at least 6600 B.C., and by 1492 more than 200 varieties were grown by peoples in the New World. Corn helped save the Pilgrims’ sorry selves when they landed outside of Boston about as prepared for winter as for a landing on the moon.
As we all know, the Pilgrims were simply the first in a long series of settlers to arrive in North America. And as tenuous outposts turned into thriving, expansive settlements, the new arrivals moved west. Many of those who landed in Missouri came from countries or parts of this continent — like the South — that had strong traditions of grain mills. Graced as the Missouri Ozarks are with the fast-flowing streams necessary to turn the stones of a mill, those quickly became a centerpiece of frontier life in this state. Families would cart sacks of grain to the local mill for grinding several times a year and needed the services of blacksmiths, grocers and others. Part social gathering place, part commercial engine, mills played a central role in the lives of generations of Missourians.
Millpictures.com — there’s a Web site for everything, you know — lists 75 past and present mills in Missouri, more than all but two other states. But of those it appears that only one remains in operation. Edwards Mill, operated by students at the College of the Ozarks and built in 1973, lacks the historical gravitas of its many predecessors. Still, it works, turning out wheat flour, cornmeal and — most interesting to me — yellow grits.
My first — and inauspicious — exposure to grits came at Space Camp in Alabama when I was in sixth grade. In the lunch line one day a suspicious, pasty glop was ladled onto my plate. I had no idea what it was, and “grits” — the answer from another, more worldly camper — meant nothing to me. They tasted like they looked, boring and utterly useless. They were, I realize now, the instant variety, unworthy of either being called grits or being consumed by people with other options. I wouldn’t eat them again for years.
My eureka moment came after preparing “Simple Grits,” from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. Following the recipe, I brought a pot with two cups of whole milk and two cups of water to a low boil, stirred in one cup of real grits and 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and then reduced heat to medium. After about 30 minutes of stirring and a couple of grinds of pepper, I had a thick, richly corn-scented pot of grits, beloved now by Yankees and Dixie-dwellers alike. No corn on the cob skewers required.
Water-milled yellow grits are available from the College of the Ozarks at http://www.cofo.edu/products.asp or 417-690-3395.