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What You Need To Know About Corn

Sea Island White Flint corn in silk on Cape Romain, South Carolina.

Corn culture thrived in isolation for thousands of years in the Americas before Columbus touched the shore of Hispaniola in 1492. A century later, corn was growing in Europe, Africa, and the Far East. Eight decades after that, Charlestowne was settled. In a letter to relatives in England, a resident of Charleston’s new settlement described her first taste of corn prepared by local native Kiawah women as a “most agreeable porridge.” Thus did Europeans come to experience Southern grits in Carolina—as a gift from local Native Americans. Essentially unchanged today, corn grits represent the strength and appeal of the South’s most defining traditional food.

To this day and in this country, the two most popular foods made from whole dry mill corn are cornbread and grits. Cornbread is universally American, but no one would argue that authentic grits are strictly Southern. The geographic “grits line” runs across the top of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia. If you hail from a state above that line you might not be Southern, depending upon whom you ask. But if you don’t like grits, it’s unequivocal: you’re not from the South.

Dry mill corn is much more than grits and cornmeal. Arguably, corn possesses the most culinary diversity of any grain. From corn flour to very coarse grits, whole hominy to hominy grits, nixtamal to masa to chicas, parch meal to ancient roasting corns—the range of exciting foods within the vast cuisine of corn is astounding. Native Americans embrace all of these foodways and in addition, grow corns of many colors, which they believe possess philosophical and spiritual meaning. We honor an important facet of this heritage with the Hopi breath sign, the breath of life for all beings, in our Anson Mills logo. This ancient sign reflects our broad-based approach to flavor and foodways and embraces a little-known fact: 300 years ago, an eight-year-old Native American girl in Charleston would have known more about growing and preparing corn than most of us know today. Our mission at Anson Mills is to return what has been lost. We rematriate flavors of antiquity to promote the wellbeing of all.

Anson Mills grows and processes Southern colonial-era viable heirloom new crop mill corns. We realize that any corn can be processed in any way, but we choose to match these old corns with the practices of their eras: hominy, meal, parch, grits, masa, and flour, to name but a few. And though we focus on a few pre-Columbian varieties, it is largely the corns of the 18th and 19th centuries that were popular from Virginia to Georgia (with a few “outsiders” in Maryland and Pennsylvania) which capture our attention. Many of our earliest native corns migrated to or from the Carolinas and Georgia. We know that any corn-based human food imaginable, and some beyond our scope of understanding, was prepared in some fashion before Europeans arrived here. And we know that since industrialization, literally thousands of unique Native American corn varieties and foods have been lost forever.

Southern mill corns are hard and dry before milling, in contrast to fresh sweet corn, which is harvested in its green, milky state. (Sweet corn is a relatively recent addition to the American table, by the way.) Though sweet corn can be dried and eaten whole kernel or ground to meal and flour, Anson Mills grows older mill corn varieties that are traditionally left in the field to dry down completely, a practice known as field ripening. Modern mill corn farming typically demands that the corn be harvested unripe and dried down with forced—and sometimes even heated—air. It is a hasty process that diminishes the corn’s natural broad flavor profile. New crop corn is defined as corn eaten within two months of harvest. We extend the new crop flavor profile from one harvest to the next by gathering the corn at its optimal dry-down moisture level and storing it in freezers.

Flint Corn and Dent Corn

Though you’d never know it today, corn has many classes of plant shape, ear shape, and, most significantly, kernel shape and hardness. There is flint corn whose kernel tops are round like kernels of popcorn (a variety of flint) and dent corn whose kernels, with a dent in the top of each, resemble candy corn. There are also lesser known mixed-class corns like flint-dent, dent-flint, etc.

Anson Mills focuses on hard heirloom flint corns and soft heirloom dent corns of the pre-industrial era, and explores how they are transformed into heritage foods with notable flavor, texture, and aroma. By “hard flint,” we mean that the starch within the kernel is hard. Hard flints are tough to mill, but are also superior keepers for long-term storage. Many flint corns also ripen earlier than dents—especially those with small kernels. The enduring popularity of Jonnycake Meal, a white cornmeal made from Narragansett White Flint, speaks to a preference for flint corn in a part of the country where early maturing crops suit the region’s relatively short growing season.

Dent corn, by contrast, has a soft starch endosperm and opaque kernels. Dents mill easily. Traditional Southern culture, with its emphasis on daily foods and handwork, chose soft dents for grits and cornmeal. Not only did the climate accommodate these late-maturing, long-season dents, but Southerners preferred the flavor of their 19th century dents compared to the flint corn varieties that grew in their region. As a result, a certain tension has existed historically in the South between its pronounced predilection for dent corn and the undeniably appealing characteristics of early-to-ripen and easy-to-store flints. The tension increases when we begin to look closely at the connection between culture, geography, and economics of our revolutionary era. From this research we have learned that most general conclusions regarding Southern heirloom corn farming and heritage foods have significant exceptions. At Anson Mills, we celebrate these exceptions and strive mightily to make them easily understood and relevant and, most important, we find amazing “new” flavors and textures for all of us to enjoy.

Grits and Polenta

Many folks ask us to define the differences between grits and polenta. As we noted, most grits, in the American South, are traditionally made from dent corn. In Italy, most polenta is made from flint corn. Italians began to cultivate flints from the Caribbean around 1500 and developed a then new European foodway, polenta di mais, or cornmeal mush.

When milled and cooked to similar forms, flint holds its particle texture longer than dent. Hence the famous beading texture and palate “grip” of properly made polenta. Flints also have different basic flavor profiles when compared in similar cookery to dents. Flints possess more mineral and floral notes, dents more “corn” flavor upfront, followed by supporting floral and mineral notes.

This contrast begets a broader discussion of polenta, grits, cornmeal, and mush. Are they just different forms of the same basic food idea? Yes and no, depending upon whom you ask. According to many food historians and the USDA, all forms of milled dry corn are some iteration of cornmeal, and all foods cooked from any of these forms are an iteration of mush.

Polenta, according to historians and the USDA, can be made from any corn and milled to any state using any milling equipment and technique from coarse “grits-like” texture to fine flour. But all of us at Anson Mills know something about 17th and 18th century European reduction milling techniques—and how that changes the game. At its introduction to Italian farming, polenta di mais was regarded as animal feed and milled in any fashion. Yes, the original forms of cooked polenta were no more than congealed porridge. But a century later, the reduction milling techniques used by Italians to make polenta di mais—when resources were available—determined polenta’s unique characteristics. In this process, corn was milled slowly to large pieces, then those large particles were passed though the mill again to make them smaller, and again to make them smaller still, until the desired uniform particle size was achieved. Reduction milling yields grist of extremely uniform particles for even cooking. And because reduction milling produces less milling heat, the flavor and texture in hard flint corn is preserved.

At the hand of Italian artisans and their quest for precision, polenta di mais evolved from multiple-pass reduction milling. American cornmeal and grits, in contrast, evolved as a contest to mill corn easily and get it into the pot with utmost speed. Nearly all corn milling in pre-industrial America was single pass, yielding grist with a wide range of particle sizes. American millers were derided in Europe for being impatient “single pass” technicians. Ultimately, when one compares polenta di mais to grits, cornmeal, or corn flour, it is reduction milling that sets polenta apart visually, texturally, and even in terms of flavor. Predominantly made from otto file, or eight-row flint over the last few centuries, polenta di mais in Italy (and at Anson Mills) has a different flavor profile, a different finished mouthfeel, and a different textural makeup than mush made from Southern heirloom dent, coarse cornmeal, or grits. Simply, we grow Italian heirloom corns and mill them with 17th and 18th century European artisan techniques to achieve the various heritage forms of polenta di mais.

So if you were wondering whether at Anson Mills polenta, grits, cornmeal, or corn flour are all the same thing, the answer is an emphatic NO. Elsewhere, with the exception of the best farms and mills in Italy, all bets are off.

White versus Yellow Corn

Folks often ask us which is better, white or yellow corn? Native Americans grew corn of every color, of course, and even in Charleston today, the best of the heirloom kitchen, mill, and whiskey corns that survived into modern times are, in order of flavor diversity, red, blue, purple, pink, orange, white, and yellow. Our slightly unsatisfying answer to the question of white versus yellow heirloom corns is this: white corn is generally less manipulated from its Native American antecedents than yellow corn, even if both are equivalent-era heirloom varieties. White flavor traits are mineral, floral, and dairy up front supported by lovely sweet and cream corn aromas and flavors. Yellow corn says “corn” robustly up front: roast corn, sweet corn, cream corn, and parch corn, a mélange of corn flavors and aromas with distinct mineral and citrus nuances underneath.


And how about hominy? Anson Mills grows specific Southern heirloom corn varieties that were popular hominy corns during the 19th century—and some from much earlier. In America we know hominy as dried whole kernel corn that has been first steeped and then cooked in a culinary lime solution to remove the outer clear coating of the corn kernel, or pericarp, and also to work a miraculous nutrition and flavor transformation within the kernel in a process called nixtamalization. Fresh hominy can be used as is for stews (posole in Spanish), or it can be ground, still wet, to masa or chopped into fresh hominy grits (an extinct foodway). Or it can be dried to make whole hominy (also known as posole or hominy). Dried hominy can then be milled to grits or cornmeal (both are extinct in the United States), or to flour (called “instant masa”). This next definition of hominy is arcane: hominy grist (not “grits”) is any fresh-milled corn grits that comes out of a stone mill. The last statement about hominy is a classic Southern take on confusing terms: the popular Southern term for a dish of freshly prepared coarse grits is “hominy.” In New Orleans and now fading in other Southern ports, whole hominy is called “big hominy” and freshly prepared coarse grits is called “little hominy.”