Hominy Foodway of the Native Eastern Woodlands. (Conference Presentation, 71st Annual SEAC Conference.)

Thomas de Bry engraving modelled after John White's watercolor.

Thomas de Bry engraving modelled after John White’s watercolor.

What follows is a presentation I gave in the fall of 2014 at the annual Southeastern Archaeology conference, held in Greenville, South Carolina (full citation appears at the end). While this is a cursory overview of the more extensive material published in the 2015 volume of Native South, the article does not have the images from the presentation. The images included are paintings, drawings, and photographs of Indians eating/making hominy throughout the historic Eastern Woodlands, and I think many of them are spectacular!


Food plays a central role in our lives. It is not simply that we eat everyday, up to several times a day. Food is much more than nourishment—enveloping it are a number of activities, ones that involve procurement, preparation, serving, and even disposal. At this point, though, we are no longer talking about just food.

We are talking about foodways, or the activities, rules, and meaning that surround not only food but cuisines (or the manner in which food is prepared). Unlike studies of food, foodways studies encompass the social activities that surround a specific food or dish, providing a means to discuss shared, common culinary as well as social practices related to specific foods and dishes. Thus, the distinct advantage of foodways studies is that they are holistic, broadening the focus from the plant or animal exclusively to also incorporate those practices surrounding their preparation and consumption, as well as the social and cultural contexts enveloping them.

An example of the important difference between these two approaches would be the study of maize versus the study of foodways in which maize is the central foodstuff.

There is no question that maize was a dietary staple among the historic and late prehistoric indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands. European explorers and colonists alike commented on the prevalence of maize throughout the region, many times taking special note of the numerous, diverse ways in which natives prepared the plant. Ironically, though, in the case of maize, what nutritional studies indicate is that, by itself, this plant is actually not a biologically life-sustaining food. Unless properly prepared or supplemented, a diet high in maize will lead to rampant malnutrition that, if left untreated, is fatal. Thus, contrary to popular thought, maize itself is not a life-giver; instead, it is the foodways associated with maize that are the life-givers, especially those that incorporate alkaline-cooking, also known as nixtamalization. Nixtamalization is a cooking technique that not only affords a processing advantage by softening the pericarps (or hulls) of mature maize kernels, but more importantly, nutritionally enhances the plant kernels by increasing the available amount of essential amino acids and B vitamins.

John White watercolor: "Man and Woman Eating."

John White watercolor: “Man and Woman Eating.”

This presentation proposes that the hominy foodway, not the maize plant per se, was the dietary life-sustaining staple of the historic indigenous groups of the Eastern Woodlands. Hominy is a dish of boiled maize kernels, either ground or whole, that have been nixtamalized, and while regarded as the principal native food dish throughout the Eastern Woodlands, even as the primary cuisine, few researchers have referred to the dish as a foodway, missing the important distinction between maize-based versus hominy-based subsistence. Instead of acting only as a stand-alone dish, the hominy foodway was a practice akin to the tortilla foodway of Mesoamerica, in which the first few steps for making tortillas involve nixtamalizing dried, mature maize kernels then grinding them. From this base, numerous dishes can be made, leading to a plethora of related but separate foodstuffs.


A page from the Codex Mendoza. A mother teaching her daughter how to make tortillas.

A page from the Codex Mendoza. A mother teaching her daughter how to make tortillas.

Nixtamalized dishes are those that follow procedures resulting in the nutritional enhancement of maize kernels, transforming them into a complete dietary staple. In order to increase the nutritional quality of the product, two basic steps must be performed either in succession or combination: first, maize kernels must be exposed to an alkaline solution, and second, they must boiled. Doing so decreases the solubility of the nutritionally poor zein protein of the kernel, while increasing the relative release rate through digestion of most of the essential amino acids. Most important, though, is that without either being supplemented by another foodstuff or nixtamalized, a population subsisting principally on untreated maize will experience high levels of malnutrition manifesting in pellagra.


Early twentieth century FDA flyer encouraging people to eat corn.

Pellagra is a chronic wasting disease brought on by severe niacin deficiency and, while noteworthy for the roughened, thickened skin that develops late in the course of the disease, pellagra also has several severe symptoms, such as chronic diarrhea and dementia, and if left untreated in many cases is fatal. Pellagra has been well documented among many historic European peasant populations who adopted the maize plant divorced of a nixtamalizing foodway.

An alternative to nixtamalization is to complement a maize diet with either one or several other foodstuffs. The most common complementary items are legumes, especially varieties of the common bean. While beans were a customary ingredient added to maize dishes in general, but hominy dishes in particular, these two plants were likely initially disseminated separately into most parts of the Eastern Woodlands. The common bean was not introduced into the region until sometime around A.D. 1300, nearly two centuries after maize was elevated to a dietary staple in many Mississippian communities and a full millennium after its initial introduction to the region.

I believe it likely that nixtamalization was an essential part of the hominy foodway for generations before an appropriate nutritional complement was introduced to the agricultural system. One highly probable byproduct of this time was the establishment of a widespread cultural taste for nixtamalized dishes that helped perpetuate this practice even during times when it served no nutritional benefit, producing a considerable amount of conservatism within the foodway. I will return to this point shortly.

From the American Philosophical Society archives, twentieth-century Seminole women grinding corn.

From the American Philosophical Society archives, twentieth-century Seminole women grinding corn.

Culinary Practices and Materials of the Hominy Foodway

In order to delineate the shared elements of the hominy foodway, I followed Jim Knight’s lead and extensively drew on the ethnohistoric record for the Eastern Woodlands, supplemented at times with ethnographic sources. Doing so revealed a basic set of nixtamalizing steps and materials. First, dried flint maize kernels are soaked, usually overnight but for at least several hours, in a solution made from either (a) hardwood ashes, or (b) lye, which is made by leaching water through ash, and is thus chemically the same as a wood ash solution. The kernels are ready when their hulls are either noticeably loosened or when the kernels begin to change color, turning either light yellow or white. Next, the kernels are processed by any combination of rinsing, rubbing, or grinding to remove the hulls as well as any excess lye or wood ash. Lastly, the kernels are boiled in an earthenware pot, a step that lasts anywhere from one to ten hours.

Dishes fitting the general nixtamalizing description for hominy are referenced profusely in ethnohistoric sources for the Eastern Woodlands. Such references that describe this process include those to boiled maize, hulled maize, maize porridge, samp, sagamité, and other maize dishes described as boiled with ash or lye but not named. Of course, while there are considerable similarities, there are distinct, signature differences that identify various group traditions. However, underlying each are the basic steps of nixtamalization that enable the transformation of maize into a nutritionally complete dietary staple, enveloped within shared aspects sociality that, together, define the regional foodway.

From the archives of the American Philosophical Society, ink drawing of a Cherokee mortar and pestle.

From the archives of the American Philosophical Society, ink drawing of a Cherokee mortar and pestle.

Considering the bounty of natural alkalizing substrates available in many parts of the Eastern Woodlands, it is surprising that among these there is one particular class preferred by practitioners: hardwood ash, with the most frequently mentioned hardwood ash used was hickory. This preference may be related to taste, in that hickory ashes may have a specific flavor that is preferred over other ashes, or it may be that hickory ashes produce a stronger (or more caustic) lye solution than other hardwoods. While some sources indicate other hardwood species used, such locust or poplar, none specify the most numerous family of hardwoods in the Eastern Woodlands: oak. However, despite this conspicuous absence, oak does play a role in several twentieth-century practices, serving as the preferred wood used to make the large wooden mortar used to grind maize, with hickory used to make the pestle.

John White watercolor of an Indian cooking pot, in Thomas Hariot's book.

John White watercolor of an Indian cooking pot, in Thomas Hariot’s book.

While wood ash or lye alkaline solutions are essential to nixtamalization, heat-treatment is an equally critical element. Many traditions separate these two steps: the kernels are first soaked in lye, rinsed, then boiled. Soaking tends to last anywhere from a couple of hours to overnight or even longer. In most accounts, soaking errs on the side of longer periods. Similarly, boiling accounts indicate this step could last anywhere from an hour to upwards of twelve, each intermixed with periods of simmering.

One of the factors that affected boiling time was the type of vessel: when an earthenware pot was used, more time was needed, but an iron or copper kettle required far less time since both kettles conduct heat better than earthenwares. With an earthenware pot, cooking time lasted anywhere from two to twelve hours with most cases falling on the longer side of that continuum. Using an iron kettle cut boiling time down to an hour or two, maybe less, although overall cooking time would still be considerable.

Bressani and Scrimshaw (1958) indicate that in order to achieve a nixtamalized product, maize need only boil for upwards of half an hour. Accounts indicate, however, that one of the primary goals of boiling and soaking was to attain a specific taste and consistency, a condition met when the kernel’s texture changed, having softened. Thus, kernels were soaked or boiled until, first, the hulls could easily be removed, and second, until the kernels were soft and the porridge had set.

As Francis King (1994) proposed, among many groups, flints were the preferred variant for making hominy. There are several sources where this connection is unequivocally made. For example, James Adair goes as far as to call flint hominy corn, while Annemarie Shimony indicates that among the Six Nations, the way to prepare flint-corn soup is to “boil the corn in wood ashes and water until the hulls come off.” The longstanding cultural preference for flint maize in the hominy foodway is at least partly related to observations King (1994:38) made regarding the differences in kernel quality and texture after being nixtamalized, during which flour and sweet variants tend to become soft and mushy whereas flints remain firmer.


Paul Kane painting of an Indian encampment on Lake Huron, 1845.

Social and Cultural Practices of the Hominy Foodway

While the culinary steps facilitating nixtamalization are critical elements, divorcing the practice from the rest of the foodway highlights it as the a priori purpose behind its perpetuation. Part of this proposal is not just stressing how the hominy foodway produced a biologically, life-sustaining food product, but also how the sociality of the foodway created a second and equally important social-sustaining quality. With European contact and subsequent colonization of Eastern North America, a number of new plants and cooking technologies were introduced to native groups, including the watermelon, the peach, rice, and both iron and copper kettles.

However, despite the potential for change, as late as the twentieth century native groups still followed traditional guidelines for the hominy foodway. Technological innovations like the iron kettle were only slowly incorporated into the foodway, while the copper kettle, one of the most popular trade items in the Northeast during the early colonial period, was valued for its raw material, and thus for the decorative ornaments that could be produced from it, and not for its high conductivity compared to both earthenware pots and iron kettles. Similarly, the overall exploitation of maize itself only slightly waned with the introduction of European domesticates. Usually, introduced plants and animals were, instead, folded into dishes built on the hominy foodway; pork, for example, became a popular addition to soups, stews, and porridges partially as a replacement for bear and other endemic animal oils.

Explaining this conservatism as a sole product of nixtamalization misses the social and cultural roles fulfilled and even generated by its daily practice. Just as sociality is imposed on the foodway, specific elements of the foodway, on the other hand, shaped the social lives of the people who practiced it.

Paul Kane painting of an Ojibwa encampment.

Paul Kane painting of an Ojibwa encampment.

Health and Hospitality

Much broader than the biological enhancement of maize kernels, lye and ash appear to have cultural connotations with, and at times, direct bearings on health. There are several references to the use of beanstalk ash in maize dishes, specifically as either a preventative treatment or remedy for various diseases, including intestinal worms. The association between maize, ash, and health is also apparent in the sociality of the hominy foodway, specifically to the status of hominy as a sick food. According to du Pratz: “When the natives are sick they eat no fish and very little meat, and they even abstain from that entirely if the nature of the malady demands it. Then they take only hominy or meal cooked in meat broth.”

We also see this association on a social level in the Pishofa Ceremony practiced by the Chickasaw and Choctaw. While pishofa (hominy prepared with meat) is not used as a food to nourish the patient, it is the primary dish prepared and eaten by the attending doctor, friends, and family who maintain a multi-day vigil, providing rally and support for the patient.

Perhaps because of its strong associations with the home, or perhaps simply because it was such a prolific dish, hominy was also broadly recognized as a hospitality food, one served to any and all visitors.

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 5.36.13 PM

Thomas de Bry engraving after John White watercolor.

A Taste for Ash and Lye

A common observation made by Europeans was that Indians frequently salted their dishes with wood ash or lye. Rarely, though, were observers actually witnessing the addition of salt. Such observations represent the common interpretation that Natives were adding substances to their dishes in order, first and foremost, to make then taste saltier. However, as James Mooney states, “Lye enters into almost all the food preparations of the Cherokees, the alkaline potash taking the place of salt, which is seldom used among them, having been introduced by the whites.” Thus, while adding wood ash to a dish may make it a little saltier, even more so it will make it more bitter. As mentioned, perceptions of food are largely social products, a process that in turn culturally constructs taste. While Europeans and Euro-Americans favored salty dishes, Natives in the Eastern Woodlands demonstrated a distinct proclivity for bitter and sour dishes.

Green Corn Ceremonialism and World Renewal

While the sociality described above were daily, if not weekly traditions, both ash and maize play key roles in annual renewal ceremonies, including the widely celebrated Green Corn Ceremonies of the Eastern Woodlands. During these first foods observances, community-wide events occupying multiple days are initiated, during which that year’s maize crop is used to support a number of ritual observances, events, and feasts. Among the foods and drinks connected with this ceremony are the famed black drink, roasted maize ears, and hominy.

John White's watercolor, in Thomas Hariot's book, of a woman holding maize.

John White’s watercolor, in Thomas Hariot’s book, of a woman holding maize.

Perhaps wittingly, world renewal is also a central theme in the broadly shared Eastern Woodland maize origin oral traditions. Maize is a gift given to humans to keep them from starving, transformed from the body of the Corn Mother. Among many Eastern Woodland groups, maize comes from the body of the Corn Mother, who is killed, burned, sometimes banished after her children come to believe that what she feeds them comes from her excrement. She consequently leaves after delivering instructions that they must now grow, care for, and prepare maize themselves. In many versions, hominy is featured as the principal maize dish that Corn Mother made for her children.           

Women and Hominy

A common thread running through each of the above elements of sociality is the link between the hominy foodway and female-gendered roles and responsibilities. Ethnohistoric accounts indicate that among Native societies in the Eastern Woodlands, women were not only the primary caretakers of both agricultural fields as well as household gardens, but were also primarily involved in food preparation. Women’s work was largely centered on activities involved in the maintenance of the home and on child rearing. The connection between women and hominy is thus visible in its connotations with health, with nourishment, and its use as a comfort food. Even the corn origin stories distinctly align maize and women—Corn Mother provides for and nourishes her children until they become unappreciative of her work.

Clearly, the conservatism and perpetuation of the hominy foodway throughout the historic period is intimately tied to women’s activities and to the broader role that women played in the conservation of their cultural traditions.

Hominy, the Staple

In the focus on food, it is easy to lose sight of how culturally and socially enmeshed our food choices are. While the intensification of maize agriculture has undeniably at times fostered social complexity, the irony is alone, maize cannot sustain human life. That is why, in major parts of the Americas, maize is tied to nixtamalizing foodways, a tendency that points to a larger phenomena taking place prior to European contact during which maize was primarily disseminated through the Western Hemisphere not as a plant, but as various foodways.

As a result, during historic times, hominy was the principal nixtamlaizing foodway among Native groups in the Eastern Woodlands, serving as the dietary backbone throughout the region, with nixtamalizing steps perpetuated even after the common bean was widely adopted. To explain this perseverance, we must look at the sociality of the foodway. First, one must not dismiss the conservative emotional attachments granted to the culinary tastes of native foodways that placed a premium on bitter, sour, even tart items, especially those that included lye and wood ash. In addition, to a greater degree than any other regional foodway, the hominy foodway has extensive associations with sociality, both domestically and communally. It is not only a comfort food, but also a special occasion dish, not only a hospitality food, but a feasting food, one served to family, to friends, and to strangers alike. Thanks to this sociality, even when nixtamalization was no longer a critical nutritional practice, the activities and ingredients associated with it were inseparable from the larger cultural and social role the foodway played, affording it an incredible amount of conservatism.

Thus, for all the focus on the importance of maize as a cultigen in the Eastern Woodlands, there are perhaps greater reasons to refocus that attention on the importance of the hominy foodway. Thank you.

Jim Knight, growing flint maize in his garden, summer of 2014.

Jim Knight, growing flint maize in his garden, summer of 2014.

Full Citation: Briggs, Rachel V. 2014. The Hominy Foodway in the Historic Native Eastern Woodlands. Presented at the 71st Annual Southeastern Archaeology Conference, November 12-15. Greenville, South Carolina.

4 thoughts on “Hominy Foodway of the Native Eastern Woodlands. (Conference Presentation, 71st Annual SEAC Conference.)

  1. Pingback: How to Make Your Own Woodash Lye | all things hominy

  2. Pingback: Food History: 1993, New York Times, “Hominy Still Has a Place In American Cooking” | all things hominy

  3. Pingback: What Hominy Is and What Hominy Isn’t | all things hominy

  4. Pingback: You say "pozole," I say "posole" | Abies

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