Hickory King Corn and Nixtamalization
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’ 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).
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?
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.
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?