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Ingredient Spotlight: Corn

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In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, October’s Ingredient Spotlight lands on an agricultural mainstay with an enduring history in South Carolina that predates the white colonizing powers for whom Charleston is named. Today, we’re talking about corn. 

As a contemporary commercial ingredient, corn is arguably overused in the American diet, and to that end has earned something of a bad name. Health-conscious label-readers in the grocery store look for products without high-fructose corn syrup – a heavily processed derivation of the cereal grain that’s been connected to widespread modern healthcare issues like childhood obesity and diabetes. However, long before it became a cheap, nutrient-void sweetener that hides in everything from cereal to salad dressing, corn – in its natural, fresh-off-the-stalk state – was a staple grain for Native tribes throughout North and South America. The varieties of corn cultivated and consumed by pre-Columbian societies of the American continent were diverse in both color and flavor. While most Americans think of corn as being pretty much the same wherever you go, the native Appalachian varieties of corn (varieties that would make their way to the Carolina coast) grow in shades ranging from sea blue to blood red, with a wide range of brix values – the scale by which sugar is measured in fruits and vegetables. Many of these heirloom varieties were nearly lost to the homogenizing forces of Big Ag through the twentieth century, but pioneering chefs and farmers have sought to re-establish these venerable American lineages and bring heirloom corn back to the Southern table. 

In the early days of re-introducing heirloom corn to the culinary landscape, Chef Sean Brock and Agricultural Explorer Glen Roberts led the movement from the kitchen and the millhouse, respectively. Brock’s quickly-famous Husk Restaurant in downtown Charleston championed heritage Southern foods of all kinds, from pork to whiskey, with heirloom corn forming the backbone for some of his most sought-after dishes, like shrimp and grits. Roberts’ Anson Mills, based in Columbia, S.C., milled the heritage varieties of corn that Brock and other curious restaurateurs served up to visiting foodies, like Sea Island Blue and Jimmy Red. While Brock has moved on to new endeavors in Nashville, Husk continues to serve some of the city’s finest examples of heirloom corn, like their Edisto Island Johnny Cake, a variation on the cornmeal patty cooked and eaten by the Edisto, Kiawah, Stono, and Etiwan tribes that once populated the area we now call Charleston. Anson Mills continues to mill heirloom corn into flour, grits, and cornmeal for both commercial and private kitchens, and have been joined by other local mills, like Marsh Hen Mill (formerly Geechie Boy Mill) in creating kitchen-ready products out of once-scarce corn varieties. 

The next time you’re in Charleston, pay attention to how many of our classic Southern dishes utilize corn in one way or another. From the cornbread at Poogan’s Smokehouse, to the colorful grits at Miller’s All Day, to the sweet cobs mixed into a Lowcountry Boil at Charleston Crabhouse, the ancient culinary traditions passed down from the native peoples of our coastal region continue to lie at the very heart of Southern cooking. To learn more about the origins of Southern foodways and Lowcountry culinary traditions, sign up for our Downtown Charleston Culinary Tour and receive a thorough education on all things Charleston foodie while sampling some of the city’s finest bites along the way!

– Palmer Stowe

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