Cornmeal, commerce, and one woman’s quixotic quest for the perfect ingredient
BY Tricia Cornell
Photo By David Van Eeckhout
UNTIL A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I thought that all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister, if I thought about cornmeal at all. Like most Americans, I kept it in the back of the cupboard and pulled it out every once in a while to dust the bottom of a pizza crust or make a pan of cornbread, using the recipe on the container. There was no reason for me to think that cornmeal could—or should—be anything different or better.
And then, last spring, we got a Ziploc bag of coarse, blue-gray meal in the first box of vegetables from our community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm share. It was a variety called Mandan Bride, prized among people who enjoy and think about cornmeal. Our farmer, David Van Eeckhout of Hog’s Back Farm in Arkansaw, Wisconsin, included a note warning us to use it quickly and to savor it. There would be no more. “I shelled it and ground it last weekend so it’s probably the freshest stone-ground cornmeal you’ve ever had, unless you grind your own,” he wrote. “Use it anywhere that calls for cornmeal and you will find that it makes the best version of that dish you’ve ever had.”
He was absolutely right. I used ours for polenta, a simple dish with three ingredients—cornmeal, salt, and water—plus a handful of Parmesan thrown in at the very end. The magic happens in the cooking. High heat, plenty of exposed surface area on top, and lots of stirring develop the corn flavor and turn the starch and fat in the grains into a creamy mass. A single ingredient couldn’t ask for a better showcase.
After dipping my spoon into the Mandan Bride polenta, I decided to skip the Parmesan entirely. It was richer, nuttier, and more flavorful than anything I had ever made out of the smiling Quaker’s canister. I eyed the empty Ziploc bag with sadness. I had to find more Mandan Bride.
Don’t try to tell a good American consumer there is something she can’t have, particularly when it comes to food. Abundance, availability, and affordability in the supermarket aisles are our birthright, yes? Seasons are no excuse. We throw hothouse tomatoes in the grocery cart year round. We pay good money for Chilean blackberries in March. Somebody, somewhere, is always growing broccoli and shipping it to us. If it’s out there in the food world, we expect to be able to buy it when we want it.
But here was something I couldn’t buy. Believe me, I tried. I Googled. I asked every natural foods co-op in the Twin Cities whether they carried local cornmeal.
Some co-ops did stock a brand made from organic corn grown and milled in Welcome, Minnesota, at Whole Grain Milling. It’s good stuff—the finely ground high-lysine yellow corn is more nutritious because it is a complete protein. The same mill also produces blue cornmeal, some of which is used in blue corn chips.
But many co-ops, erstwhile champions of the local food ethos, don’t carry any local cornmeal. “Cornmeal?” was the usual response at the other end of the line, as if I’d asked about some obscure foodstuff—and this from folks who regularly field questions about quinoa. A helpful staffer would scamper off and return to report that there was a variety or two in stock, but it was shipped in from elsewhere, usually California. No one knew the name of the variety of corn they carried. That shows how much thought we give to corn these days.
We’re still eating plenty of it though, as Michael Pollan notes in his new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. According to Pollan, more than a quarter of the products on grocery-store shelves typically contain corn syrup, corn oil, and other corn derivatives. But cornmeal? It’s disappearing from our diet. The average American eats 114 pounds of wheat flour every year, but only 11 pounds of corn flour. (Most of which is probably consumed in the form of tortilla chips.)
CAST IRON PANS of hearty cornbread may be part of our American culinary heritage, but it’s no longer part of our daily diet. Grits and hush puppies survive in the South; polenta comes in and out of favor in haute cuisine; but we’ve forgotten old classics like cornmeal mush, spoonbread (a cornmeal soufflé), and anadama bread (heavy loaves of cornmeal and molasses).
The average home cook making an occasional pan of cornbread to go with chili may be perfectly content with the familiar canister. But after I’d discovered the nuanced flavor of high-quality cornmeal, I was no longer average. I couldn’t go back to the bland commercial stuff. So I called David Van Eeckhout, my CSA farmer, to find out why Mandan Bride tasted so much better—and why it was so hard to get.
One key factor in the variety’s delicious flavor, Van Eeckhout told me, was that the corn was freshly ground. But even more importantly, it was ground whole. Most commercial cornmeal is made from yellow dent corn, or field corn, which has much tougher outer hulls on each kernel than the sweet corn we eat as a vegetable. Those fiber-rich outer hulls and the protein- and fat-rich core of each kernel—called the germ—are removed before grinding, robbing the cornmeal of nutrients—and flavor. Mandan Bride ears contain a combination of flint kernels (which are enclosed in hard shells) and flour kernels (made entirely of soft starch), adding interest and substance.
But what really sets this cornmeal apart is that it was bred for flavor and nutrition (by the Mandan Indian tribes of North Dakota, according to most experts), not for its ability to produce the most kernels of corn on an acre, like commercial hybrids. Hybrid seeds don’t “breed true,” meaning you can’t plant the seeds from last year’s crop and expect them to resemble the parent plant. But Mandan Bride is an open-pollinated cultivar, and many growers reserve the seed from their own fields for the next year’s planting, making each farm’s variety unique—and uniquely suited to their own land.
It’s also, according to Van Eeckhout, “a real pain in the butt” to grow. Mandan Bride is simply not a commercially viable crop. The weak stalks tip over before the corn has dried, making it difficult to combine. You can’t harvest it with a corn picker, because the cobs are soft and would get crushed. So it must be picked by hand—never mind the laborious process of shucking, drying, and grinding. Also, because it’s an open-pollinated variety, rather than a hybrid, stalks can’t be planted as tightly together as conventionally grown corn. So the yield is about 20 bushels per acre, compared to 100 to 150 bushels—or even 200—in large conventional-farming operations.
As if this weren’t enough, the raccoons love it. And they don’t just eat a few ears, like deer do. They rampage through the rows, taking a bite here and there. They’re capable of ruining 50 to 100 stalks in a night.
Once you get through with all that, as Van Eeckhout says, “Nobody wants to pay the $10 a pound or whatever it would cost.” He hasn’t actually done the math, but the price would be high. “Maybe if I wanted to wrap it up in little one-pound packs and sell it in specialty stores…or if it came from Italy, they might buy it,” he muses. As he sees it, “in the Midwest, everybody is only a couple of generations removed from the farm, so they don’t want to pay for anything that, you know, just grows in the ground.”
Because of its challenges, nobody is growing this remarkable corn commercially. But ambitious gardeners and small farmers like Van Eeckhout are taking notice. Seeds are available from purveyors like Seed Savers, which specialize in old varieties. Mandan Bride is listed on Slow Food USA’s RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Coalition compilation of America’s endangered foods—more than 700 distinct indigenous foods, dubbed “the culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.” Mandan Bride is labeled a “recovering rare food,” meaning it is in the midst of a revival but its long-term survival is not assured.
I figured at least one of those ambitious growers must want to sell me some more cornmeal, so I asked Van Eeckhout for a recommendation. He came up with only one possibility: Greg Reynolds, who grows Mandan Bride along with dozens of other crops on Riverbend Farm, a 30-acre spread outside Delano. As it turns out, he sells lettuce, peas, squash, tomatoes, and such to co-ops and restaurants. But the cornmeal, sadly, he keeps mostly for himself.
I visited him on a Sunday morning in early June, just before he headed out to the fields to plant this year’s corn, along with 1,500 heads of cabbage, kohlrabi, and cauliflower. A pan of cornbread was cooling on the massive butcher-block table in the center of his worn, spotless, and very comfortable farmhouse kitchen. The bread isn’t much to look at, if you’re used to cake-like bright yellow Yankee cornbread. It is coarse and dense and an unfamiliar shade of blue-black. But when you split the bread for butter, the generous crumb grabs the butter and holds it while it melts. And it has a pleasant, mysterious crunch. “When I eat cornbread somewhere else,” Reynolds laments, “it’s not like cornbread anymore.”
Reynolds explains his gardener’s sensibility when it comes to farming: “I grow enough of the mundane stuff to support [my growing] the funny kinds of eggplant,” he says. “Once I get through picking the Mandan Bride by hand and shucking it and cobbing and grinding, it’s not worth selling it.”
Reynolds and Van Eeckhout have been friends for years and used to farm together. Although the two differ on the best way to show off the flavor of Mandan Bride (Van Eeckhout says it’s polenta, while Reynolds prefers cornbread) the two have a lot in common.
“For people like David and me, it’s about finding things that taste good,” Reynolds says. He cites Van Eeckhout’s mission to grow a certain variety of melon so it won’t split before it’s ripe, a characteristic that would force him to pick it before the melon’s flavor was at its prime. “It’s about that extra little bit that makes food taste good,” Reynolds says.
Commercial cornmeal may be abundant and easily available, but to me, it’s no longer what cornmeal is supposed to taste like. Reynolds generously gave me a bag of Riverbend cornmeal that I’ve got stashed in a cupboard, and I’m pinning my hopes on four rows of Mandan Bride that were planted at Hog’s Back last spring. If the raccoons didn’t eat all of it, if the rain and sun came at the right time, and if Van Eeckhout has enough to spare for his CSA members, then, and only then, will we have a couple meals of sublime polenta next year. Nobody said eating well was easy.
Tricia Cornell, editor of Minnesota Parent and Good Age, wrote about Land O’Lakes taste panelists in our May issue.
Check out the mandan corn as one of our rare varieties.