I have been doing a little reading about the disaster that was the Irish Famine of the 1840’s, and this led me to a discussion of the gifts and purchases of ‘corn’ (maize) from America that were made in attempts to relieve the starvation. Before long I found myself a couple of centuries earlier in America, enjoying samp - the original polenta, if you like the connection – and beer made from bread.
Governor John Winthrop (1606-1676) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent to the Royal Society of England a report on maize, and it is a marvelous account of the uses of that crop in the colony. His report was included in the thirteenth edition of Philosophical Transactions, Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labors of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World (London, 1677-8.) I give you the "cooking part" of the article:
The Description, Culture, and Use of Maiz. Communicated by Mr.Winthorp [John Winthrop]
This Corn the Indians dressed several ways for their food. Sometimes boyling it whole till it swelled and became tender, and so either eating it alone, or with their Fish or Venison instead of Bread. Sometimes bruising in Mortars, and so boyling it. But commonly this way, viz. by parching it in Ashes, or Embers, so artificially stirring it, as without burning, to be very tender, and turned almost inside outward, and also white and flowry. This they sift very well from the Ashes, and beat it in their wooden Mortars, with along Stone for a Pestle, into fine Meal. This is a constant food at home, and especially when they travel, being put up in a Bag, and so at all times ready for eating either dry or mixed with Water. They find it very wholfom Diet. And is that, their Souldiers carry with them in time of War. The English sometimes for novelty, will procure some of this to be made by the Indian women, adding Milk or Sugar and Water to it, as they please..
The Indians have another sort of Provision out of this Corn, which they call Sweet-Corn. When the Corn in the Ear is full, while it is yet green,it hath a very sweet Tast. This they gather, boy!,and then dry,and so put it up into baggs or baskets, for their use: boiling it again, either whole or grosly beaten, when they eat it, either by itself, or amongst their Fish or Venison or Beavers, or other Flesh; accounting it a principal Dish.
These green and sweet Ears they sometimes roast before the Fire or in the Embers, and so eat the Corn. By which means, they have sufficient supply of food, though their .old Store be done. Their Souldiers also most commonly at this time goe out against their Enemies, having this supply in their Marches both at home and in the Enemies fields.
The English, of the full ripe Corn, ground, make very good Bread. But 'tis not ordered as other Corn. For if it be mixed into stiff Paste, it will not be so good, as if made only a little stiffer than for Puddings; and so baked in a very hot Oven, standing therein all day or all night. Because upon the first pouring of it on the Oven-floor, it spreads abroad , they pour a second layer or heap upon every first, and thereby make so many Loves. Which is baked enough, and good, will be of a deep yellowish colour; if otherwise, white.
It is also sometimes mixed with half or a third part of Rye or Wheat Meal, and so with Leaven or Yest made into Loaves of very good Bread.
Before they had Mills, having first watered and Husked the Corn, and then beaten it in Wooden Mortars; the courser part sifted from the Meal, and separated from the loose Hulls by the Wind, they boyled to a thick Batter: to which being cold, they added so much of the fine Meal, as would serve to stiffen it into Past, whereof they made very good Bread. But the best sort of Food which the English make of this Corn, is that they call Samp. Having first watered it about half an hour, and then beaten it in a Mortar, or else ground it in a Hand or other Mill, into the bigness of Rice, they next lift the Flower, and Winnow the Hulls from it. Then they boyl it gently, fill it be tender, and so with Milk or Butter and Sugar, make it into a very pleasant and wholsom Dim. This was the most usual Diet of the first Planters in these Parts, and is still in use amongst them, as well in Feavers, as in Health: and was often prescribed by the Learned Dr. Wilson to his Patients in London. And of the Indians that live much upon this Corn, the English most acquainted with them, have been informed by them, That the Disease of the Stone is very seldom known amongst them.
The English have also found out a way to make very good Beer of Grain: that is, either of Bread made hereof, or else by Malting it. The way of making Beer of Bread is by breaking or cutting it into great jumps about as big as a mans fist, to be mash'd, and so proceeded with as Malt, and the impregnated Liquor, is Woort, either adding or omitting Hopps, as is desired.
To make good Milt of this Corn, a particular way must be taken. The Barly-Malt-Masters have used all their skill to make good Malt hereof the ordinary way but cannot effect it; that is, that the whole Grain be Malted, and tender and flowry, as in other Malt. For it is found by experience, that this Corn, before it be fully Malted, must sprout out both ways, (i.e both Root and Blade) to a great length; of a finger at least, if more, the-better. For which, it must be laid upon an heap a convenient time. Wherein on the one hind, if it lyeth of a sufficient thickness for coming, it will quickly heat and mould, and the tender Sprouts be so intangled, that the least opening of the Heap breaks them off; and so hinders the further maturation of the Grain into Malt. On the other, if it be stirred and opened to prevent too much heating, these sprouts which have begun to shoot, cease growing, and consequently the Corn again ceaseth to be promoted to the mellowness of Malt.
To avoid all these difficulties, this way was try'd and found effectual; Take away the top of the Earth in a Garden or Field two or three inches, throwing it up half one way, and half the other. Then lay the Corn, for Malt, all over the Ground so as to cover it. Then cover the Corn with the Earth that was pared off; and there is no more to do, till you see all the Plot of Ground like a green Field covered over with the Sprouts of the Corn, which will be within ten days or a fortnight, according to the time of the year. Then take it up, and shake the earth from it and dry it. For the Roots will be so intangled together, that it may be raised up, in great pieces. To make it very clean, it may be washed, and then presently dry'd on a Kiln, or in the Sun, or spread thin on a Chamber floor. This way, every Grain that is good will grow, and be mellow, flowry and very sweet; and the Beer made of it, be wholfom, pleafant,and of a good brown colour.
Yet Beer made of the Bread, as aforesaid, being as well coloured, as wholfom and pleasant, and more durable; this therefore is most in use. And the rather, because the way of Malting this Corn, last described, is as yet but little known amongst them.
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