The last few weeks of November have been as beautiful as any fall in recent memory. Because of the dry sunny weather, farmers all over the area have been working day and night to harvest this year’s bumper crop of corn.
Believe it or not, what we call field corn is edible. It’s certainly not as sweet and has a different texture than eating corn, but years ago people collected field corn to serve on their dinner tables as well as feed the stock. Our grandparents cut it off the ear and dried it. It was served as a side dish as we would do today. We still use “field’ corn in various ways – cornbread, tacos, nacho chips, corn relish, cornmeal mush and so on.
Most old timers will wax poetic about the days when they had to pick corn by hand. This is not very complicated – the farmer drives his horses and low-sided wagon down the corn rows, stopping to pick each ear, husking it by hand and throwing into the wagon. This is a long drawn-out process, but some Amish still harvest this way. To speed up the process, they use an antique device called a corn hook, which helps to cut through the razor sharp dried husks.
One of the most well-known ways of taking in corn is through shocking it. The first step is for the farmer to drive his team of horses, pulling a machine called a binder which cuts the cornstalks off close to the ground. The binder then makes bundles of corn which must be gathered by hand and stacked up in a teepee-style pile. Although the cornstalks are now dry, the corn is probably not dry enough to be stored safely. The whole idea is to prevent the corn ears from falling on the ground and absorbing moisture. When the corn is dry, it will be gathered on a wagon and either shucked by hand or run through the corn picker.
Using a Cornpicker
A corn picker can be pulled either by horses or by a tractor and gathers the corn in the row. The stalks are pulled into the machine which mechanically removes the ears from the stalk and husk. The ears go through a shoot and are tossed into a wagon pulled behind the picker. A cornpicker is a dangerous piece of machinery because of its gathering chains and propensity to jam. This machine might have been responsible for more lost fingers than any other farm implement because farmers (unwisely) sometimes reach into the machine to remove jammed corn ears.
After picking, the corn ears are stored in a corn “crib”, a tall storage unit that is built to allow air to pass through the building. This allows the corn to air-dry. Wet corn will get moldy and be almost useless as feed. Corn cribs may be round or rectangular, but are always made with slits between the boards or with a wire.
As mentioned earlier, field corn is quite edible, especially as cornmeal. Cornmeal is simply ground dried corn. If you are the self-sufficient type, you can buy a hand mill to grind your own meal. There are still some a few custom grist mills in the area that will grind their own cornmeal and flour. You can use roasted meal for a richer flavor or unroasted for a lighter color and more typical flavor.
Here’s one option for using cornmeal – in cornbread. There are all sorts of recipes, but here is one that is tried and true and is one of my favorite dishes. It’s found in the Mennonite Community Cookbook, which is full of old-fashioned recipes.
Sour Cream Cornbread
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 t. soda
1 t. cream of tartar
1 t. salt
2 1/2 t. sugar
1 egg, well beaten
2 T. melted butter
1 cup thick sour cream
4 T. milk
Sift dry ingredients together. Add beaten egg, cream, milk and melted butter. Beat thoroughly and pour into a greased 9-inch square baking pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes (using a glass pan) or 425 degrees if using a metal pan.
This is a nice moist cornbread that is best eaten fresh. Our family always ate it right out of the oven, crumbled in a bowl with sugar and milk.