Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chocolate Corn.

I came across the phrase ‘chocolate corn’ the other day, and anything with ‘chocolate’ in its name immediately engages my attention. I thought of chocolate-coated popcorn, corn-bread with choc chips, chocolate polenta, and several other things before I took pause and read further. The phrase appeared in the Scientific American of February 21, 1863, so it was more likely to refer to an agricultural product than a culinary treat – although the article does include a ‘recipe.’ Here it is:

Chocolate Corn.
In Illinois a species of millet is grown under this name, which serves as a substitute for coffee, and tastes precisely like weak chocolate, and even resembles it in color. The preparation of a beverage from it is thus described: If we want for our table four pints of chocolate, we take one and a half head of grain, nearly filling the funnel of our coffee-mill, which is about 4 inches wide, and 1 inches high, and grind the kernels a little fine. Having proceeded thus far, we mix the ground substance with two pints of water, and boil it until the starch contained in it forms into a lump the liquid is then passed, to separate it from the grains, through a fine wire sieve or tin colander two pints of sweet milk, from which the cream has been skimmed, and a good table-spoonful of common powdered sugar, and a
little cinnamon, are then added to the decoction. It is now boiled once more, and a most delicious beverage, which is scarcely distinguishable from light chocolate, is ready for use. If you wish to improve it still further, you may add an egg and a little nutmeg.

It seems that the writer to the Scientific American was mistaken – ‘chocolate corn’ is not millet. Nor is ‘corn’ in the sense of maize. ‘Corn’ used to be the generic name for the predominant grain in an area, so in the nineteenth century in England, for example, it meant wheat. As with the citrus confusion outlined in the story a few days ago about ‘Adam’s Apple,’ the common names of many grains and cereals are confusing, but as far as I can gather, chocolate corn is a variety of Sorghum (S. bicolor.)

A short comment in another article, from 1826, is illuminating:

S. Bicolor, commonly called Chocolate-corn, is sometimes cultivated, as a matter of curiosity, and has been used as a sort of substitute for chocolate,—which, like rye-coffee, may answer for those who cannot obtain better; but it is not likely to come into general use.

‘Coffee-corn’ turns out to be another common name for this type of sorghum, indicating that for some nineteenth century consumers it might with proper preparation taste precisely like weak coffee as well as weak chocolate. Or is this a triumph of wishful thinking over actual sensory experience?

Some of the other common names for the plant are illuminating in other ways, so I give you a selection of them for your interest:

Chinese sugarcane
Egyptian corn
Indian millet
Kaffir corn
Negro corn
Rice corn

Tennessee rice.


Shay said...

The term "coffee corn" may refer to the brew made out of parched by Confederate soldiers, who because of the Federal blockade had no access to coffee during the American Civil War (unless they stole or swapped for it from their opposite numbers in blue). I can't imagine how it was made or how it tasted.

The Old Foodie said...

I am sure you are right, Shay. I keep meaning to create a list of all of the coffee substitutes that I can find. I bet they all tasted awful and not a bit coffee-like.