Soured Corns (1922, 2015): A Tale of Two Fermentations

Sour sweet corn, from Garden & Gun.

Sour sweet corn, from Garden & Gun.

Many people are surprised when they find out that the native groups who lived in the prehistoric and early historic Eastern Woodlands did not make their own fermented, alcoholic beverages. This wasn’t for lack of suitable materials–corn, as many know, makes a fine beer and liquor. History and culture are likely the culprits.

However, while native groups were not making their own alcohol, they were fermenting. Soured hominy was a dish found throughout the Eastern Woodlands, and is still made by some practitioners today. Like sauerkraut, soured hominy was not alcoholic. However, unlike sauerkraut, hominy was not “soured” using salt through lacto-fermentation (an acidic fermentation process); instead, hominy was alkaline-fermented, a kind of fermentation practiced the world over. It is still an important culinary tradition in many parts of Asia and Africa where fermented fish, beans, and seeds are featured heavily, and well as some American communities.

While the two recipes included here seem similar, they represent not only two different fermentation processes, but utilize different ingredients (woodash lye versus salt) as well as different varieties of corn (flint versus sweet). Yet, what they both have in common is that they demonstrate another use for corn, one that has a long, and extremely varied, history.

Sour Hominy (from Muriel Wright, 1958; originally from Melvin Reed, 1922). Also known as Tanfula Hawushko (a Choctaw/Chickasaw recipe)

Set freshly cooked hominy (Tanfula, see below) in a moderate temperature, and let it stand until fermentation takes place. This dish should have an abundance of liquid as it is eaten much like soup. This liquid is also given to quench the thirst in cases of fever.

Tanfula (Hominy)

Pour boiling water over a quart of flint corn grits, or finely cracked corn, enough to serve it well, and add two tablespoonfuls of ash-lye solution. Boil the corn in a heavy kettle three or four hours, or until the corn is tender and well done, stirring occasionally while cooking to keep it from sticking. Water should be added during the boiling as needed. The hominy is loose with some liquid and a light yellow color when done.

Sour Corn (adapted from April McGreger, 2015, in Garden & Gun).

Makes about 8 cups, or 4 pint jars

Ingredients:

  • 1 dozen ears sweet corn
  • 1 quart of spring water
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of pickling salt (or another pure salt)
  • optional spices include peppercorns, coriander seeds, chiles

Preparation:

Remove the kernels from the cobs and reserve them in a bowl. Discard the cobs. Combine salt and spring water and mix until salt is dissolved. (It is important that you do not use tap water, which often contains chemicals that can prevent fermentation. Spring water is available in gallon jugs at most grocery stores.) Add the kernels to a large glass jar or ceramic crock and pour the brine over the top, along with any spices. Keep the corn below the level of the brine using a plate, a smaller jar, or another weight, and check it often over the next 5-7 days. If a white film begins to form across the top of the brine, skim it off. It is a type of yeast that is not dangerous, but can change the flavor and texture of the corn. When you are happy with the flavor, remove it to clean glass jars and store it in the refrigerator for up to six months, taking care to keep the kernels submerged in the brine.

(Note: when we’ve lacto-fermented vegetables at home, we’ve found that it’s best to keep them cool, below 70 F and ideally around 50 degrees.)

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