Hominy is a varied term with a varied past. I’ve already touched on this a bit, but the subject deserved much more attention. It can be ground or whole, lyed or cooked in woodash, and can be from various maize varieties. So, what are these different definitions of hominy and where do they come from?
What Is Hominy
At its broadest, hominy is a dish of boiled maize kernels that have been treated in an alkaline solution (or nixtamalized, with the “nix” pronounced as “NEESH”). Hominy isn’t made from just any kind of corn–it’s made from flint or dent corns. You may not know much about flints or dents–corn on the cob is sweet corn, and most of the corn we encounter (in stews and soups and whatnot) is also sweet. Pop corn is the only other variant of corn most Americans are familiar with. Flints, pops, and even dents have a much tougher outer seed coat than other variants of corn. Thus, different varieties of corn need to be cooked differently. It’s kind of like how different kinds of apples should be used for different kinds of products–some are better for making pies, for making apple source, or cider, or for eating right off the tree. Corn is the same.
Second, it has been nixtamalized. This is important. Flints and pops have a hard outer seed coat that, if it isn’t removed, inhibits the kernel from swelling with water. Soaking the kernels in an alkaline solution will loosen the outer seed coat, even dissolve it based on the concentration of the solution. In the process, the kernel absorbs water and the alkaline solution–this is important for nixtamalization. When these swollen kernels are cooked, the chemical composition of the kernel is altered, which is essential for boosting the nutritional value of maize. Dents and flours have thinner seed coats, and removing their seed coats requires a less caustic alkaline solution. For some, the seed coat is so thin it can be removed simply through boiling. However, while these kernels will swell with water, unless they are alkaline treated, their nutritional value is not boosted.
To remove the seed coats from flint and pop maizes, you have two options: either soak it overnight in a solution made from lye (in prehistory, lye was made from limestone or woodash), and then either grind or rub the kernels together to remove the seed coat; or boil the kernels in an alkaline solution, let it cool, then remove the seed coats. The strength of the alkaline solution you use is determined by the final product you want to attain. On one end of the lye spectrum, about three-six tablespoons in a quart/quart and a half of water it all you need to grind the maize, remove the pericarps, and not jeopardize the integrity of the kernel (meaning you can grind it, remove the pericarps, but not turn the product to mush)–this id roughly what you’d do to make cracked kernel hominy. On the other end of the spectrum, one to two cups of lye in a quart of water softens the seed coats enough so that, after rinsing, you can simply rub the coats away–the final product here is whole kernel hominy.
Thus, two variations in making hominy–coarsely ground or whole kernel. Posole is a kind of Mexican stew made from whole kernel hominy. Pasdayape is a whole kernel hominy stew from the Delaware tradition. Sofkee and conihani, on the other hand, are Creek and Cherokee (respectively) hominys are made from coarsely ground kernels. Samp whole kernel homing found primarily in New England.
Lyed corn is hominy, but speaking from a historical culinary perspective, it is a kind of syncretic hominy. Lyed corn is in fact made with lye, but usually the lye is a commercial lye, like Red Devil. Lyed corn is a product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, and represents a syncretism of Native, White, and African foodways (a social history of hominy that deserves its own post!).
What Isn’t Hominy
A pot of sweet corn, left to simmer and stew on the stove, is NOT hominy. This is just a delicious pot of sweet corn.
Hominy is not polenta and it is not grits. While both polenta and grits are made from ground dried kernels, they are not nixtamalized–in the sixteenth century, Italians first adopted the maize plant divorced of a nixtamalizing culinary tradition. While maize is taken very seriously in Italy, it is not traditionally alkaline treated.
Grits, as well, have not been nixtamalized. Usually made from dent corn, though flints are not uncommon, grits are simply dried maize that have been coarsely or finely ground.
Cornmeal is finely ground maize, and, again, has not been nixtamalized.
Corn tortillas are not hominy, but they are made from nixtamalized maize, frequently referred to as nixtamal. Dried maize kernels are soaked overnight in an alkaline solution (usually made from lime), drained and rinsed. The kernels are then finely ground and made into masa, or nixtamalized corn dough. Once the dough is ready, handfuls are rolled out, then cooked on a comale, resulting in wonderful tortillas.