Book Review: The Story of Corn

The Story of Corn
Betty Fussell
North Point Press: New York, New York 1992
Winner of the IACP Jane Grigson Award 1993
Out of Print

This book isn’t a cookbook, but it is a book that cooks might enjoy. It is a book that unlocks the cultural history of that most American of crops: corn.

If you think of corn only as that stuff in your freezer that you pop in the microwave and serve with butter, you might not realize the complex tangle of mythology, history, biology and anthropology that come together to weave the complete tapestry of this one plant’s relationship with humanity. But, if you realize that corn underlay the entire diets, monetary systems and religions of various Native American societies, you might have an inkling of the power that this crop held and still holds today. Or, if you are a farmer who grows the stuff and knows just how dependant upon human intervention corn is for continued existence, you might know a piece of the picture Betty Fussell paints. If you live in a Latino community and you cook and eat such corn-based foods as tortillas and tamales on a daily basis, you will know that corn is integral to the lives of you, your family and your neighbors, and more importantly, you will understand intimately that corn is a part of you, your culture and your people.

All of these different facts come together in The Story of Corn; it is a monumental achievement to write such a complex cultural history of an extremely important foodstuff; Betty Fussell’s research is complete and very accurate. Because of this, some readers whose interests are not so catholic as my own might skip around from chapter to chapter, but the book is written in such an engaging way that I cannot imagine not being enchanted by finding out where each new thread will lead as the author unravels the tangled skein of corn’s meaning and place in the world.

Interesting facts abound in the book; from a culinary perspective there are many nuggets of worthwhile knowledge to be mined here. For example, Native Americans of various cultures discovered that treating dried flour corn with alkali in the form of wood ashes or slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), not only removed the hull of the grain and made it more digestible and easier to grind, but actually made corn more nutritious as well. Alkali treatment made more protein available for digestion and released three important amino acids–tryptophan, niacin, and lysine–for use in the human body. Simply grinding corn into meal or flour does not release these necessary nutrients, and so it was found that people who live with simple ground corn as a staple will contract pellagra, a nutritional deficiency that, if untreated by a change in diet, can kill.

However, every Native American society that used corn as a staple also treated the majority of it with alkaline substances, thus creating a variety of very nutritious foods, and so were able to thrive on their corn based diets. The variety of foodstuffs created from this treated corn were great–there is hominy, and of course, grits, both favorites in the Southeastern United States regional cuisine. Then, there is posole–hominy that is dried after being processed, and then later cooked into stews in the Southwest. Posole with green chiles and pork is a traditional festival stew in the Pueblos; among Anglos and Latinos in New Mexico, it has become a favorite Christmastime dish. And, of course, the damp, treated corn can be ground into a flour known as masa, which then can be shaped and cooked into tortillas, or mixed with various other ingredients and made into tamales. Both of these dishes have roots that are twined deep in pre-Columbian history; the Aztecs cooked and ate both tortillas and tamales for centuries before Cortez “discovered” them and recorded the range of their foodstuffs.

Though there is not a recipe in sight in the book, reading it did make me hungry. I found myself longing to taste some of the dishes described in the book, so I went into my pantry and dug out some posole, and set to work making up a pot of stew. I had neither pork nor green chiles in the larder, but I did have lamb and various dried red chiles; remembering that the Navajo are herders of sheep and will eat mutton and lamb, I named the dish in honor of them. Since I can’t very well invite everyone who reads this review to come over for a bowl of stew, I will share the recipe. It is written with the use of a pressure cooker in mind, but if you do not have one, just use your regular stewpot. However, I would suggest soaking your posole overnight, and draining off the water, and then making sure you have time to simmer the treated corn for at least three hours to get it to cook properly.

Navajo Posole

1 large onion, sliced thinly
3 tbsp. olive oil or bacon grease

1 lb. lamb stew meat

3 tbsp. flour

salt and pepper to taste

2 chile colorado toasted in a hot pan and soaked in hot water until softened

1 ancho chile done just as the chiles colorado

1 tbsp. whole cumin, toasted

1 tbsp. whole coriander seeds, toasted

1 chipotle en adobo

2 tsp. adobo sauce

4 large cloves garlic

1 ½ cups dried posole, rinsed and drained

bay leaf

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

1 can Muir Glen fire roasted diced tomatoes

Flour as needed to thicken

Fresh cilantro

Heat olive oil or pork fat in pressure cooker and cook onions until they just start to brown.

Toss lamb with flour, salt and pepper until well coated. Brown in hot oil with onions until well browned.

Take the stem and core out of the three dried chiles and discard seeds if you like. Grind along with cumin, coriander, chipotle and garlic into a rough paste. If you use a blender, grind spices first with a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder.

When meat is browned, add chile mixture and cook until fragrant and rich-scented. Add soaking water and chicken broth. Fill pressure cooker until halfway full. Add posole and bay leaf, bring to a good boil, lock down lid, bring up to 15 psi.

Cook on low heat for 45 minutes. Take off heat, allow pressure to lower naturally, open lid and put back on high heat and reduce liquid by about an inch or so. Add can of tomatoes and reduce liquid further until it is only about 1” above the level of the solids.

Thicken as needed with flour, correct seasoning and serve with fresh cilantro.

A good hot bowl of this stew was just the thing to drag me out of my snow-induced cabin fever; eating it while reading the Story of Corn was enough to transport me across time and space and deposit my imagination among the cliff dwellers and the folk whose king was feasted upon hundreds of masa-based dishes and who drank chile-spiced chocolate. Reading the book gave me a sense of how much the foods of the New World changed the way that every culture on Earth ate, and it helped boost my appreciation for the creativity and ingenuity of cooks everywhere.

Interestingly, after writing this review this morning, I ended up making a variant of posole stew this evening for dinner. I had taken out a pork butt to cook into shredded pork; I had planned to make corn tortillas and use the pork as a filling. However, upon unwrapping it, I discovered that there was a larger than usual amount of fat running throughout the piece of meat, and the thought of shredding it was very unappealing to me. So, a change of plan ensued.

Out came my trusty boning knife, and I began removing as much of the fat as I could while cutting the meat into bite sized chunks. I had already begun to caramelize a thinly sliced onion and jalapeno pepper, so I decided to make a pork stew. After I took care of the meat, I tossed it in flour and Penzey’s Adobo seasoning. I then added the meat to the onions and chile, and browned it, adding four thinly sliced garlic cloves and another jalapeno and a minced chipotle. I deglazed the pot with a good slosh of sherry, and added chicken broth, some freshly toasted and ground cumin and coriander seeds and Penzey’s Mexican Oregano, then poured in about a cup or so of rinsed dried posole. I locked the lid down on the pressure cooker and cooked it at 15 psi for about twenty-five minutes. While that was going on, I picked over some pink beans I had, and rinsed them.

When the timer went off, I released the pressure, opened the pot and stirred in the beans, along with some frozen roasted red bell pepper bits I forgot I had laying around. I locked it back up and brought it back up to pressure and cooked it for another twenty minutes, opened it up, checked the beans–they were nearly done, and threw in a can of Muir Glen diced fire roasted tomatoes, some paprika and some more adobo. Then, I locked the lid back on and cooked it for a final fifteen minutes. I thickened it up with a little bit of roux, and served it garnished with some sour cream and cilantro.

Considering it wasn’t what we expected to eat, nor was it what I expected to cook, dinner turned out fabulous. Zak pronounced the recipe a keeper, which is why I went ahead and wrote it down here in abbreviated form–it is better than relying completely upon my memory or scribbling it down on a notepad somewhere. Or worse, on an envelope.

The flavors were complex but quite clean–I credit the freshness of Penzey’s spices for that. The meat was fantastic–it was tender and very flavorful, and there was enough fat to moisten it and give it richness without leaving the stew mired in pools of liquid grease. That is always an unappetizing prospect. The posole, as always, gave the entire stew a good strong corn flavor, and the kernels themselves were both tender and chewy, and complemented the pork perfectly. The beans were soft without falling apart, and gave a nice textural contrast to the chewier corn, while at the same time adding a bit of thickness to the broth.

I am glad I was forced to change my plans–it is fortuitious accidents such as these that lead to happy challenges for the cook, and memorable meals.

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