Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Iroquois White Corn Project

Iroquois White Corn
by Amy Brandlin and Lou Sinesio

The Iroquois White Corn Project got into full swing this summer. We processed and packaged about 100 pounds of corn flour and whole white corn. The one pound bags were sold at the Ganondagan Dance and Music Festival in July.

What is Iroquois White Corn?

The Iroquois White Corn is a special variety. It is especially significant, because the corn plants are descendents of the corn which was grown by the Haudenosaunee who lived in the town of Ganondagan in the 1600's. The French military torched the stores of grain, but all the corn was not destroyed in the fire. Generations of Seneca men and women have continued to grow this variety, saving the genetics.  This corn is now grown all over the region by Haudenosaunee farmers who meet regularly to exchange seeds and talk about issues related to their crops. We began the project in part to build a sustainable market for them.

Iroquois White Corn
Most people, when they think of corn, picture in their mind "sweet corn." Sweet corn is sold fresh, processed in canneries, and sold as frozen corn. Field corn (not sweet and usually the "Number 2 Dent" variety) is used as feed for chickens, cows and pigs and in the production of corn syrup, and corn meal. If you are driving and looking at the corn fields in the area, it is probably Number 2 Dent corn that you are watching grow. The growing of so much Number 2 Dent has created what is known as a monoculture. Monocultures are not good for any species. Variety is the spice of life, but also it is important for the survival of a species. Genetic diversity within a species creates strength against disease and adaptability to environmental changes. Typical American agricultural practices today have largely created a corn monoculture. The Native American agriculture, however, is very diverse with many types of maize or corn. The focus of the Iroquois White Corn Project is the Iroquois White corn variety. The seeds are shared and exchanged throughout the community, ensuring adequate genetic variability to ensure plant health.

Where Does the Corn Come From?

Native American farmers here in our region grew the white corn for the project. After being harvested by hand in the fall, it must hang to dry. For this, it is braided in the traditional way. After it has dried a few months, the kernels must be removed from the cob. This is done manually by pushing the kernels off the cob with one's thumb. Some people use a tool to remove the kernels.

How Is the Corn Processed?

If the corn is to be made into roasted white corn flour, it is roasted, ground and bagged. The White Corn Project uses a large coffee roaster for the creation of the Roasted Corn Flour product. The nutritional advantage to our white corn products is that the germ is not removed, so the products are whole grain. The flour should be refrigerated, as the oils in the germ need to be kept fresh. The germ contains vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.

White corn to be used in soup or stew (as hominy) must be treated in a lye bath to remove the outer hull on each kernel. This process is known as nixtamalization. Many people follow the traditional way to create a lye solution with hardwood ashes. That is done by rinsing the corn using a corn basket, which is a traditional tool still made by Native basket makers. These baskets are constructed of ash splints that are sized and spaced specifically for the corn washing. Throughout the region, Haudenosaunee people are still using and teaching this method.

One of many hand-crafted steps in processing the corn
Many people though, find the work involved in preparing the corn in this manner difficult. And with modern hectic and busy lives, many people just do not have the time.  The White Corn Project is using a culinary lime or calcium hydroxide to create that lye solution. The corn is brought to a boil and simmered until the hull becomes loose and is able to be washed off. The treated corn is then rinsed in a wire basket with fresh water. We are also exploring reliable sources for clean hardwood ashes.

After the corn is rinsed free from the outer shell covering and the lye, and drained, it is placed in the dehydrator. The corn takes about 4 hours to dehydrate. These kernels are bagged to be sold as Hulled White Corn. To use in a soup or stew, they must be soaked overnight, drained and then cooked according to the recipe, until soft. After dehydration the corn can also be ground to into White Corn Flour. This flour can also be used as a substitute for corn meal or blended in combination with other types of flour in recipes.

Why Iroquois White Corn?

Besides connecting connecting people with local agriculture, the Iroquois White Corn Project also connects people with history and ancient traditions.

For some, it is also a personal connection with with their ancestors. As one of The Three Sisters, this corn is sacred to the Haudenosaunee people. We thought of Sister Corn as we finished up our work - her portrait hangs in our workspace and smiles down as if in appreciation.

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