It’s probably been ten years now since I wrote the chapter on really wild wild rice in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating. But this all-American food has been on my mind and my table a lot again of late, inspired in part by dialoguing with Meg Noori, who teaches Ojibwe at U-M and is doing amazing work to get language down in writing and up in regular use. (Email me and I’ll fill you in on my covert campaign to make Michigan the “Aanii State.”) But in the moment I’ll share a couple or six key points about what makes this totally traditional aquatic grass (yes, wild rice is not a rice; you can chalk the name up to more confusion from the early European settlers here—they thought it looked like rice so that’s the name it got.) so good.
One of the first things that English settlers did when they got to North America was to plant wheat. Bread was the taste of home that they had a hard time living without. While the wheat growing didn’t always work out, they always found ways to make bread. Though few American s know it, this is one of the first, and to my taste, the best, of old time American breads.
Although polenta is woven firmly into the cooking and culture of much of Europe, it’s relatively modern since corn didn’t come to Europe ‘til after Columbus, at the very end of the 15th century. However, porridges made from dried and ground grains existed long before that. While it was generally rejected in well-to-do parts of the Continent, it was quickly put to use as an economical way to feed the poor. In hard-scrabble, scrounging economies—Tuscany, the mountains of Northern Italy and Greece and remote spots like Romania, corn polenta became THE major food for most people.While it is still associated in some people’s minds with poverty, it’s also connected to the communities that cook it in the same way that pasta, rice, fish and paella are elsewhere. They’re part of everyday eating, part of the seasonal swings of celebration, tied into religious feasting and fasting rituals.
In the food world, dried corn has remained a closely closeted, practically clandestine culinary secret. No longer. We’re going to out it – I’m reluctantly going to formally announce that Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn is the “next big thing.”
Jim Grosh, business manager at the Roadhouse, tasted the first batch of creamed corn we made from it, smiled big and said, “Yep, that’s the stuff. I grew up on it.” The late RW Apple who has written extensively on both food and politics for the New York Times for many years reported that, “I’ve been eating Cope’s corn since my childhood.” Writing about the Thanksgiving meal, he said, “More than anything except the turkey, it is a link to our forefathers, something we all seem to crave.”
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