Heirloom White Corn: Keeping an Iroquois Tradition

History and recipes of maize, an old American staple.

| May/June 2001

  • Photography By Joe Coca

A mainstay of both Aztecs and early Americans, traditional maize has been replaced since the Industrial Revolution by hybrid field corn, which can be mechanically harvested and produces enormous yields. White corn, an Iroquois staple that is still cultivated by Indian farmers in New York, Ontario, Québec, and Wisconsin, is considered vastly superior in taste and nutrition but requires a lot of labor to reach the table. For best flavor, maize is hand-picked, air-dried, and hand-hulled.

Food-lovers who want a taste of the real thing are in luck, however. In collaboration with John Mohawk of the Turtle Clan Seneca, a partner in the Restorative Development Initiative, and his wife, Yvonne Dion Buffalo, The Collective Heritage Institute is working to revive and popularize the use of traditional Iroquois white corn, which was in danger of dying out. The group is marketing heirloom white corn organically grown and milled by the Iroquois Indians on the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York. The corn is available by mail order in the form of hulled whole corn (posole); stone-milled, hulled tamal flour; and stone-ground roasted white corn meal.

Operating out of a tiny log cabin in a cornfield, Mohawk and his colleagues hull the corn in lime and stone-grind it to order every week. Mohawk roasts the maize in heavy cast iron pans. He laughs that his young assistants are incredulous as they watch “an old man like me” lift and shake the heavy pots sixty times over the fire until the cornmeal achieves its nutty flavor.

“To prepare and ingest this mysterious, delicious corn thrills me,” says Leslie McEachern, owner of New York City’s Angelica Kitchen, whose menu now features several items made with maize. “Knowing its source adds such depth to enjoyment, as well as flavor, nutrient profile, and good value.” Adds Kevin von Klause, chef-partner of White Dog Café in Philadelphia, which also serves dishes made from Iroquois white corn, “The sweet, earthy aroma and flavor of the corn flour that is ground from these ears is well worth the extra cost.”

The corn is now being featured at the Frontera Grill and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago; Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California; Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Oregon; Savoy in New York City; and in Santa Fe at Joseph’s Table, Geronimo’s, Corn Dance Café, Pasqual’s, and the Catamount. Noted vegetarian cookbook authors Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen are also developing recipes using white corn.

The price is $4 per pound for ten-pound minimum orders, plus $10 for shipping and handling. To order, call (877) 246-6337, write Bioneers/CHI, 901 West San Mateo Rd., Suite L, Santa Fe, NM 87505; or visit www.bioneers.org.

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