Bury St Edmunds-based food writer Nicola Miller explores the enduring spiritual connection between humankind and corn and gives us a ‘gentle side dish’ in celebration
For a brief period in August 2020, a single urban cornstalk offered a kernel of hope for the residents of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. Growing in a pavement crack, the cornstalk even had its own Twitter account until someone – or something – uprooted the plant, leaving locals upset and angry. A hastily written memorial commemorates its early demise and stolen future, but this cornstalk was always doomed to failure. Exiled from the state’s golden fields of corn that sway in the breeze like upthrust arms at a rock concert, there was no way this plant could ever come to fruition.
Rugged individualism and self-reliance are underpinning characteristics of this relatively new nation. As colonisers moved across the land taking along the corn seeds that Indigenous people had shown them how to cultivate, the crops they planted in their wake and their use of increasingly mechanised farming systems demanded individualism. Collaboration and co-operation within smaller farming communities were eroded as farms grew larger and larger. Yet a single cornstalk cannot set seed without the close co-operation of its neighbours and when we bred corn with larger cobs well-protected by husks, the result was a plant which depends on our continued labour and physical movement across terrains to assist in the dispersal of its seed. There is extraordinarily little that is self-reliant about modern hybridised corn, in spite of the geographically imposed self-reliance of many American arable farmers. This dichotomy is a painful one: loneliness and alienation, loss of community and the simple fact that many of the factors that affect agricultural production remain beyond the control of the farmers have triggered a mental health crisis.
What you see when you look across a cornfield are not serried rows of individuals but rather groups – or blocks – of plants planted in a pattern that ensures their tassels can be efficiently wind-pollinated. Indigenous people knew this – they still know this – and they planted their corn in family groups, surrounded by squash and bean plants – the famous ‘Three Sisters’ who work together to enrich the soil and support each other in growth. The oldest evidence of corn’s domestication and ingestion was found on an archaeological site located in the southern part of the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and to this day, Mexicans call themselves the “children of corn”, descendants of the Indigenous people who worshipped three different corn gods. Sweetcorn, that symbol of the USA from sea to shining sea, is an immigrant, a beautiful Mexican wave rippling across the Americas. How ironic.
These children of the corn would go on to be economically displaced by the widescale cultivation of a plant that they themselves domesticated from a wild grass when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) exerted its effects on smaller scale Mexican and American Indigenous corn farmers.
There is something deeply human about a stalk of corn and perhaps this is why a lot of films have scenes set in cornfields. They are places of threat and nostalgia and logic and confusion; a symbolic and actual battleground for the trials and tribulations of being human. Whether the cornfield is from a part of the world where the noise of insects is akin to the sizzle of bacon hitting a hot pan and the ground is littered with crisp, brown husks or the rain-softened earth of the English countryside with only the odd cricket breaking the silence, you’ll find some remarkably similar themes of good and evil, revelation, mysticism and growth and a retelling of ancient spiritual beliefs which intimately connect humankind to corn.
We embody each other: Mayan creation stories tell of the gods’ attempts to make humans which failed until they used corn dough. The poet (and son of migrant farmers) Juan Felipe Herrera in his memoir, Mayan Drifter, defines his family relationships through corn and when his father dies, he notes that his careworn hands have been etched by the corn he farmed. Here in England, beliefs about the corn spirit go back to Pagan times where it lives on in the plaited corn dollies made by villagers post-harvest and kept in a place of honour until the following year’s planting began. There is something eerie about them because the corn and its inherent spirit must be cut down at harvest. We sacrifice the corn and then we sacrifice the dolly which is either burned and its ash returned to the cornfields or ploughed into the earth prior to sowing after a winter season of spiritual safekeeping. The corn and its spirit remained heafed to the land it grows in.
‘Triple Corn Tender Cake’ is not really a cornbread or a cake and neither is it a southern-style spoonbread where the eggs are separated so the whipped whites can leaven the mixture which is cornmeal-based; my recipe does not even contain eggs. It is not something I invented either; chain restaurants in the States all serve their own versions, and this is mine, much tinkered with over the years to maximise its tenderness. It was Nigella who used ‘tender cake’ to describe a particularly soft and yielding texture and I have borrowed her description because it really suits this cornbread/pudding/cake hybrid and avoids the deployment of ‘moist’ or ‘damp’, two descriptors that I find a bit off-putting when applied to food.
This recipe does not come from a specific place either (especially as cornbread as we know it is not a Mexican thing per se), but it is imbued with el espíritu del maíz, made as it is from three different kinds of corn: kernels, masa harina and cornmeal. The freshly-creamed kernels add tenderness along with the buttermilk, giving you a crumb and texture that is softer than bread or cake but not as soufflé-like as a spoonbread. (I have experimented with sour cream, single and double cream and milk, but settled for buttermilk.) It is a gentle side dish which goes well with all sorts of chicken dinners, as a sop to chilli, tajines, soups, meat, seafood, and vegetable stews, or by itself, topped with a pat of butter. Triple corn tender cake really loves the company of bacon, pork chops, ham and gammon and I would happily eat it with any of those, accompanied by eggs, any-style.
TRIPLE CORN TENDER CAKE
Serves 4-6 depending on appetite
4oz/110g butter, softened
3oz/85g masa harina
60ml warm water
12oz/340g fresh shucked corn or canned, drained sweetcorn
2oz/55g white sugar
2 tablespoons buttermilk
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
If you are using fresh corn, shuck the cobs and, using a sharp knife, cut the kernels away. If you are using canned, drain the kernels. Now process the kernels in a food processor or with a stick blender until they are smooth and creamy. You can leave them chunkier, but I prefer not to.
In a medium bowl beat your butter until it is pale and soft. Pour in the masa harina and water and beat until well blended. Now, stir the creamed corn in until incorporated. This is the time to breathe in deeply because the scent of corn is intense.
Take a separate bowl and mix the cornmeal, sugar, buttermilk, salt and baking powder, then add it to your corn mixture and fold until the mixture is well blended. Pour batter into an ungreased 26cm x 20cm (or thereabouts) baking dish (there is no need to grease it first) and smooth its surface with a spatula. Wrap foil around the base and sides of the baking dish and then cover the top with foil too. Place your well-wrapped dish into a large roasting tray and pour in hot water until it comes a third of the way up the sides of your baking dish. The water bath method will help keep the crumb tender.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes but check it after 50 minutes; ovens vary. Remove the top layer of foil for the last five minutes of cooking. Serve scooped from the dish.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020