Hickory King Corn and Nixtamalization

An ear of hickory king corn

Back in January when I was browsing seed catalogs for interesting fruit & vegetable seeds, I came across the description ‘Hickory King’ a pre-1875 dent corn cultivar (throughout this post – and throughout my blog - I am using corn in the American sense of the word, i.e., meaning “maize”, not the British meaning of “grains”). Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a small seed house based in Mineral, VA, specializes in non-GMO open-pollinated kitchen garden seeds with many of its heirloom offerings adapted to Virginia. Here is what the 2008 catalog entry for ‘Hickory King’ reads: “HICKORY KING: 85/110 days. [Pre-1875.] In the hills and hollows of Virginia this corn is still appreciated as a roasting and hominy corn. It is considered the best variety for hominy because the skin of the kernel is easily removed by soaking. Also good for grits, corn meal, and flour. Makes a nice roasting corn (the old fashioned way of eating corn on the cob). […]. This variety grows extremely tall. Our stalks reach 12’. Some people use this variety for providing support for pole beans. Produces about 2 ears per stalk. Ears have very large flat white kernels. Husks are tighter than most varieties and give excellent protection from beetles and earworm. Has good tolerance to northern leaf blight (H. turicum) and southern leaf blight (H. maydis).”

12 feet tall? That must be quite a sight, thought I wonderingly, and would remind me of the sugar cane growing in fields next to my childhood home… I was also curious to experience what corn tasted like before sweet corn came along a 100 years ago or so. Temptation bit – it did not need to bite hard. ‘Hickory King’ was ordered.

The patch where I planted the corn had not been improved at all: in late winter we took the sod off – if “sod” is the word I can use for that mix of grass, weeds & wild flowers – and covered the bare soil with black plastic to warm it up faster and to prevents weeds from germinating. Shortly before planting time, we removed the plastic and Keith loosened the soil, actually trenching it. I put compost at the bottom of the trench, piled the loosened soil back in, sprinkled lime and planted ‘Hickory King’ as well as various winter squashes. Corn likes a bit of extra nitrogen, so all summer long the patch was mulched with grass clippings.

hickory king corn towers over the winter squash

‘Hickory King’ grew fast, towering above the rest of the garden – and then some. Strong stalks solidly anchored themselves, sending additional roots into the soil (as seen on the picture below).

Hickory King Corn sends extra roots down

They stood tall despite some high winds and a few storms: out of 30 plants or so, only two bit the dust, knocked down by the wind: they continued to grow – albeit horizontally – and eventually ripened their ears. The husk were indeed very tight – so tight it was a little difficult to pull them open to check the kernels for those ears we wanted to eat fresh – not to mention that some of the ears were a little difficult to reach. Their size is commensurate to the plant size: decidedly longer than the sweet corn I was growing – the dry ear measuring about 11 inches from tip to end. The yield as promised – about 2 ears per plant.

We ate some of the ears when the kernels were still in milk as roasting corn (definitively more a starch than a vegetable) – as recommended in the catalog. A better way to eat it was to sauté the kernels (which had been sliced off the cob) with onions, garlic and spices – and THAT was not bad at all! Finally, we let a number of ears dry: could we make corn meal, I wondered?

Dry ears of hickory king corn

After shelling my corn, I am now the proud – and puzzled – owner of large bowl (about 9 pounds worth) of pale yellow corn kernels. It’s a simple pleasure to bury my hands in the bowl, filling them with the kernels that cascade back into the bowl like little golden pellets. Should a kernel falls on the floor, one of the cats is quite quick to pounce on it and bat it around with great vigor. Each ear yielded about ½ pound of dry kernels, or a very heaped cupful – so each plant on average gives 1 pound of dry kernels.

So what to do with the dry ‘Hickory King’ besides running my hands through it in almost hypnotic fashion? How does one prepare the corn for meal? In the back of my mind, there floated the idea that the corn needed to be treated with lye… but I really could not remember. Yeah, I know, I should have worry about that when I planted it…but really who knew? The soil may have been no good. The crop could have failed. The borers could have been a disaster… there was no guarantee we would harvest anything at all – let alone the advertised yield.

An internet search – including always handy Wikipedia came to the rescue – as it often does – explaining the necessity of treating the corn with an alkaline solution through a procedure called nixtamalization. Besides improving the nutritional value of the corn by releasing the niacin locked in the dry corn, nixtamalization – a word of Aztec origin – also allows the corn to be more easily ground (think masa harina), improves its flavor and its digestibility, and reduces the possible noxious side effects of certain fungi that may be present. Today, commercial treatment of dent corn for hominy, grit or cornmeal uses protease enzymes to – in effect – predigest the corn, accelerating the changes that occur in traditional nixtamalization. Not having access to protease enzymes, I am stuck to having to look for Pickling Lime to treat my corn. Despite being quite a DIY type of person – especially in the food arena – I am not quite ready to use ashes to make lye.

What happen if I were not going to treat my maize? Well, history tells us that corn was welcomed by farmers as it spread rapidly throughout the world after Columbus’ voyages (being planted in Spain as early as 1598). But where it became the diet staple – such as areas of Spain, Italy, France, Egypt – malnutrition followed with quite severe results: the ensuing disease became known as Pellagra (“rough skin” in Italian), a vitamin and protein deficiency that can cause dermatitis and other skin problems, diarrhea, and in the most severe cases dementia and death. Cute, eh? It took several centuries to realize that by adding ash or lime to their corn meal and by eating corn with beans the indigenous American populations prevented Pellagra from incurring. The process of soaking and cooking the whole corn grains in a lime solution resulting in the separation of the outer hull from the inner grain is called nixtamalization: it allows niacin (a B-vitamin) to be turned a form that the body can absorb and somewhat increases the protein content of the corn. Those Indian populations had also learned to eat their maize with beans, amaranth or with animal proteins such as meat or fish – acquiring in the process the complete range of amino acids for normal protein synthesis. They did not know the science behind it (the causes of Pellagra were not proven until 1932), but they knew it worked. For more details about Pellagra – in plain English – consult Wikipedia.

shelled hickory king corn

So, as we eat a very varied diet – and not that much corn – I don’t really think I need to worry about Pellagra. Still… it makes one think. Anyway, I soaked a handful or kernels overnight and simmer it for several hours. It’s eatable, but a little chewy.

Since I’ve come that far, I decided I may as well look for Pickling Lime (which is food-grade calcium hydroxide). I did not have to go far. My trusted rural farm supply store, known locally as “The Co-op” carries it in its canning supply aisle. For $3.79 (plus tax), I am now in possession of one pound of Pickling Lime. Further research indicates that it takes ¼ cup to treat 2 pound of dry corn. So – plenty indeed to nixtamalize (what a word!) my 9 pounds of ‘Hickory King’!

I just have to find a glass or unchipped enamel pan to cook the corn and the lime. Lime is caustic so metal is out of the question. I’ll post my attempt – and who knows? – success at nixtamalization. And if I am successful, then here we come hominy & pozole! And if I can figure a way to grind it, then I’ll make masa and fresh masa corn tortillas!

In the mean time, I’ll use the dry cobs as kindling. Ain’t corn something?

21 comments

  1. El says:

    So, how did it go, Sylvie? I’ve made posole for the last 2 years now with our own dent corn and I have used baking soda both times. (I have lye and am scared to use it and I couldn’t find pickling lime so…I used what I had.) It’s not hard to make but getting the shells off is a bit of a pain so I would take their word that Hickory King is easy to shell…believe me, it’s tiring if it’s not a hominy/posole friendly corn. Anyway, I love the stuff, it’s great in pork-based stews, throw in a couple tomatoes too. I make enough to freeze and can so I don’t need to repeat the process.

  2. Sylvie says:

    El – I will sheepishly admit that I have not done it yet. My big bowl of corn kernel is still full of kernels. I figure they’ll keep for a while while I tend to other garden tasks that MUST be done now and my small business…

    I have managed to identify a source for an old stone grain mill which I need to pick up in the next few days.

    Hickory King was fairly easy to shell off the cob (I used a hand sheller). Even if did not need to be nixtamalize for nutrition reason, something would have to be done: I soaked a few untreated kernels overnight and then added them to a soup, and they were still very chewy with the kernel “skin” (?) being very “distracting”.

    Maybe a good project for New Year Day, you know a symbol of hope for the new year…

    Like you – I am very hesitant to use lye…

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. CT says:

    Hi folks -

    I just happened by while researching corn meal. If this is any help, I just made a batch of hominy from yellow dent corn using the wood ash method.

    The process is simple and just takes simmering time, I would like to encourage you to go ahead.

    After simmering the dry corn in alkaline solution (matters not whether lye, woodash lye, or pickling lime) until the hulls begin to come off you then dehull it. I would say it takes about 2 hours on the stove using 2 handfuls of ashes to a half gallon water and 2 cups shelled corn. Use lots of water, the corn will soak it up. I haven’t used Lye or lime, but the principle is the same and you can find recipes on the internet.

    Using rubber gloves I squeeze the kernels around in my hands in a colander, rinsing periodically under the tap. Easy. Getting the black ends off the kernels takes another bit of simmering after which I repeat the colander/squishing step. I believe I get 99% of the black ends off with no hand picking. I just eat the 1%, but then I’m a guy and have reduced food quality standards.

    I simmer it for an hour, drain the water, and cook it for about 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker saves a lot of time. Beautiful stuff and not much work, as easy to make 20 cups as it is 2 but it doesn’t freeze well so I don’t and canning requires about 90 minutes which is too painful. 2 cups yields about 4.5 cups hominy.

    You can email me if I can answer questions.

  4. sylvie says:

    Hello CT. All good info, thank you so much for sharing. Very helpful & practical – especially the yields.

    Other people also had posted helpful comments. The last 30 days of comments have however disappeared. I am slowly trying to bring them back. They were all helpful!

  5. Debs says:

    Originally posted on 11/19/08

    Nice! Traditionally-living cultures universally found a way to treat grains to make them digestible, something we’ve pretty much lost these days. Nixtamalization, fermentation, soaking and sprouting… these practices all developed for a reason, as you point out in the case of the corn.

    Those kernels and ears are lovely!

    Debs
    Food Is Love/Seattle Local Food

  6. Paula says:

    Originally posted 11/20/08

    I seem to recall reading that the Iroquois cooked their corn, which was a flint-type corn, with a handful of clean oak or hickory ashes. The corn cooks for a long time in an open kettle and the kernels pop open like very chewy popcorn.

    Paula

  7. Paula says:

    Originally posted 11/20/08

    …i guess i can’t edit my remark…Anyhow, meant to add that the corn is rinsed quite thoroughly after it’s cooked with the ashes. This process might actually be repeated a couple of times. Then the treated corn can be dried, or immediately made into soup.

  8. sylvie says:

    Originally posted 11/20/08

    Thanks Paula. One of the things I wanted to look into was what kind of wood to use for the alkali treatment that you describe – instead of buying Pickling lime. Not that I would necessarily do it… but I love to know those things. I am sure that the wood would make a difference. I wonder what it is in the ashes of Hickory & Oak, both eastern US hardwood, both abundant, that made their ashes appropriate for treating the corn. I also wonder what wood was used by the western tribes and which by Central and South American populations? I see a chemistry and archaeological treatise here…

  9. Paula says:

    Originally posted 11/20/08

    Hi Sylvie. I always thought that the ashes of oak might have the same tannic acid that the leaves and bark have, but don’t know about hickory. I’m not sure about the tribes in the Southwest…the Pueblo people preferred a different flint corn…a blue corn. I don’t remember reading about how they prepare it, however, other than sifting it in their beautiful baskets. And Central and South America are outside my area of expertise (i can tell you how manioc is prepared, but don’t know anything about their corn preparation). It does sound like the makings of a Ph.D. thesis…i would guess someone out there has done it already!

  10. CT says:

    Folks -

    The wood ashes mixed with water create a basic (as opposed to acidic) solution which if concentrated enough becomes lye. Lye was made for soap by trickling water through hardwood ashes. So wood ashes in water is the same as running an equal amount of water through the ashes.

    Species matters little and there is no apparent difference in flavor. The simple matter is that hardwood ashes have more strength, so to speak, and that is why they are favored. Someone mentioned tannins, I don’t agree since they are consumed by flames and the resulting ashes are basic. Tannins are acidic.

    The nixtimalization process is one that involves simmering shelled corn in a basic solution which can be created by using ashes, lye, or slaked lime (pickling lime) with similar results. Perhaps lime has a chemically different effect on the nutrients in hominy due to the calcium, don’t know, but all that really matters is to create a strongly basic solution. You decide how basic. If it doesn’t work quickly enough then use more ashes next time, but I found 2 handfuls worth enough to be unpleasant to my skin, and my hands do heavy work and have callouses.

    If you want to dive in follow the instruction in comments above, it is repeatable. Couple handfuls of hardwood ashes or follow the directions for slaked lime or lye which you can find on the internet. Same thing.

    Ashes wash off during the process and you will not see or taste them, no grit to the teeth.

  11. Farmer John says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. I had a long distance friend trying to describe this to me over the phone last week. She uses the fire ash method. Now that I know more, I have some better questions to ask her before I attempt it this year.

  12. Alex Gittens says:

    I came across the post during a search for somewhere to buy Hickory King corn kernels, because they’re apparently what are used in Cornnuts. If you like Cornnuts, you can find recipes online: basically you soak the kernels overnight, then deep fry and season them.

  13. sylvie says:

    Another great tip. Thanks Alex!

  14. Linda says:

    I searched Hickory King corn because my grandaddy used to grow it when I was a little girl — back in the 40′s. I hadn’t seen any for years and wondered why. I remember it as being delicious – grandma just shucked it and cooked it like we cook any corn ears and we buttered it up and ate it. Maybe my memory isn’t accurate, or it was just all we had — or the memory is just connected to my grandparents and a time when life seemed so simple and so very warm, but I’d walk a mile for an ear of it right now!

  15. John B says:

    Thank you for the tips on using this corn. We live just over the mountains from Rappahannock in Page Valley and have really enjoyed growing Hickory Dent particularly knowing it’s traditional connection to the Appalachian region. Our neighbors often asked us what that corn was that grew so fast and so tall in our garden. Have you come across anything about recommendations for storing the kernels? Can they be kept on the shucked cobs, or should they be removed?

  16. sylvie says:

    John, after a year in storage, both the shelled corn and the corn on the cob look good. Obviously, the shelled one takes a lot less space, and they shell pretty easily (of course, we don’t have that much so a hand sheller does the job for us). And the kernels are wonderfully plump, not something I expected based on the seed corn I bought.

  17. Dario Turner says:

    Hi Folks

    Dario here, in Ramona, CA. This year I plan
    on growing some maize and going through the
    nixtamalization proces to make tortillas like
    I used to eat in Nicaragua when I was a little boy. They are as different from the store bought
    tortillas made from masa arina as day is different
    from night. I just survived open heart surgery,
    and I have decided to enjoy life by getting back
    to basics. Nice to meet you’all.

  18. sylvie says:

    Hi Dario – glad you survived the surgery. “Funny” how some events are life-changing at so many levels. Enjoy life and back to basics and report or your tortillas fabrication, please!

  19. Dario Turner says:

    Thank you, Sylvie, for the warm welcome. I will
    indeed keep you posted. I’m just now getting my
    stamina back, having just received my new aortic
    valve on March 1.

    Dario

  20. Missy says:

    Hi dent corn folks. I am planning to plant 2 30 ft rows of Hickory King and 2 30 ft rows of Bloody Butcher. If/when the corn is ready to pick, can I just she’ll and grind it up without going through all the lime/wood ash Nita-whatever? Also, how do you dry the ears before shelling? Thanks do much, this is great info here. Best wishes from north Ga mtns!!!!

  21. sylvie says:

    Missy, I have let the corn dry in the field, and harvested it when the kernels were hard (that was pretty late in the fall). I then shucked it, spread the ears in a single layer on screens and let it finish drying in the house. I suppose you could also hang it using the husks to tie them to a rope (old-style air-drying). Use a fan to blow air if it is humid. You can then shell and store and keep the ears as is until ready to grind. I still have a couple of ears from that summer. My chicken ending eating most of the corn – they loved it.

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