Southern Food Profile: Corn Grist

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CORN GRIST

Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding. It can also mean grain that has been ground at a gristmill. Its etymology derives from the verb grind.

Grist can be ground into meal or flour, depending on how coarsely it is ground. Maize made into grist is called grits when it is coarse, and corn meal when it is finely ground. Wheat, oats, barley, and buckwheat are also ground and sifted into flour and farina. Grist is also used in brewing and distillation to make a mash.

CORNMEAL

Cornmeal is ground dried corn. You can find it at any chain grocery store, but the best cornmeal is stone ground and you may need to source that at a mill or through mail order. Unlike more modern methods of milling, the stones don’t substantially heat up the grains, resulting in a superior flavor and texture. Find a miller who grinds corn to order or purchase a small home grinder that will allow you to vary the size of the grind. Many millers ship grains via mail order, and a home mill can be easily purchased on the Internet.

HOMINY

If you take dried flint corn and cook it in lye until the outer hull of the kernel separates, you’ll leave the germ of the kernel behind—and get hominy. This process, called nixtamalization, originated with Mesoamerican Indians and has a very specific effect: it unlocks the nutritional power of corn, making it much more digestible, especially when combined with rice or beans. Unlike Native Americans, Southerners and Europeans didn’t fully adopt this practice and thus they often lacked the complete nutritional protein that it creates, leaving their populations who subsisted on cornmeal and preserved meat susceptible to a vitamin deficiency disease called pellagra.

HOMINY GRITS

Old-timers call it “little hominy,” but modern commercial grits bear little resemblance to the staple grist of yesteryear. Industrial milling and commercial corn production mean that most of the grits you find are simply coarsely ground cornmeal, but hominy grits are nixtamalized dried kernels ground to a coarse consistency.

MASA

Latin Americans take fresh hominy and grind it while still wet, producing a soft corn flour that constitutes the basis for everything from tortillas to tamales. The commercial kind is called masa harina and comes dried in bags, like cornmeal or flour.

POLENTA

Corn traveled quickly to Italy after its “discovery” in the Americas, and it soon replaced buckwheat and farro as the grain of choice for polenta. Very similar to the South’s grits and African ugali, polenta is a cornmeal mush originally eaten by peasants, a staple of the cuisine Italians call la cucina povera, but it is often made from flint corn, a very hard variety that has a lower starch content.

SAMP

Early colonists used the terms “grits” and “samp” interchangeably, but when we talk about samp today, we are referring to cracked hard flint corn. It’s hard to make, since the best samp is cracked by hand, but the kernels of good samp can be shattered, producing very little corn flour in the process. This type of rough corn cooks up like rice, tender and fluffy.”

~ Sean Brock from “Heritage”

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