More than 400 years after the first English settlers stepped ashore at Jamestown, the defining way in which a new native food reshaped their lives has been largely forgotten.
Though raised on Northern European wheat, barley and oats, they learned early on that nothing sustained them like Indian corn.
So vital was this local grain that when there wasn’t enough the inescapable result was not merely hunger but also — as in the brutal winter of 1609-10 — the stone-cold threat of starvation.
Well-suited to the climate, productive and easily grown, this essential food not only kept the settlers fed but also provided the extra time needed to cultivate the labor-intensive tobacco crop that made the Virginia experiment successful.
And though some colonists loathed the foreign seed — corn — others embraced it in ways that changed both the chemical signatures of their bones and their cultural identities, becoming a culinary badge of allegiance to their New World home.
So fond was planter William Byrd II that he devoted entry after entry in his diaries to his breakfasts of humble corn furmity.
Thomas Jefferson’s taste ran so strong he grew corn in his Paris garden while serving as envoy to France during the Revolution.
Hoecakes based on Indian and African dishes were Washington’s favorite breakfast, and he joined poor and middling planters, slaves and hogs in an appetite that defined Virginia.
“Corn saved us,” says culinary historian Michael Twitty, who was a 2017 Revolutionary in Residence at Colonial Williamsburg.
“This is where America’s love affair with corn began.”
Life or death
Soon after landing in the New World, Spanish scouts in Cuba noted vast tracts of land sown with corn.
“(They found) a sort of grain they call Maize,” Christopher Columbus wrote, “which was well tasted when baked or dried and made into flour.”
A century later, English colonist Thomas Harriot described the same agricultural super dominance in the Algonquin Indian fields that rose up near the doomed lost colony in North Carolina.
Corn ranked as the first “sustenance of man’s life,” he wrote in “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” where he extolled the native grain over English wheat for the diversity of dishes it provided — plus its higher yield and far less demand on labor.
In Virginia, corn formed the bedrock of the Indian diet and center of tribal life, with the Chickahominy embracing it so strongly they incorporated a native word for corn in their name.
“Corn is their staple crop — and it has this iconic value because of its utility,” says Lara Templin, assistant interpretive program manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
“It’s so important that Powhatan takes it as tribute. He brings it out and presents as the ‘best’ food when he’s receiving important guests from other tribes.”
That long record of success explains why the Virginia Company focused so much on “country corn” in its plans for provisioning the first settlers, notes former College of William and Mary foodways student Megan Edwards Alvarez — now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago — in an unpublished paper.
But not until the colonists stopped depending on trade with the Indians and turned to sowing their own crops in earnest did they solve the problem of a perpetually unpredictable and sometimes fatally short supply.
“They were expected to turn a profit quickly. They didn’t want to waste time being agriculturalists. And the plan was to trade for Indian corn,” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Curator Bly Straube says.
“But there were times when there wasn’t enough for the Indians, much less the colonists. And that’s when the English starved.”
The settlers hedged their bets from the beginning, as seen in the 1607 furrows unearthed by archaeologists just outside the footprint of James Fort in 2013.
“Our next course was to turne husbandmen, to fell Trees and set Corne,” John Smith reported in 1608.
“Fiftie of our men we imployed in this service.”
Still, Smith spent much of his time trying to trade with and even strong-arm the Indians for their crop, which had fallen short because of a record drought.
Pocahontas played a key role in feeding the colony, too, bringing corn to the hungry at Jamestown.
But when 300 settlers arrived in late-August 1609, the loss of their supplies en route led to disaster.
“They ate through all the corn in three days,” Jamestown Rediscovery Director of Collections Michael Lavin says, “and there was nothing left.”
Hundreds died in the ensuing Starving Time, pushing the colony to the brink of failure.
But not until Jamestown’s leaders set aside their ambitions as traders and ordered the colonists to take up hoes and plant corn as the Indians did was there permanent relief for their empty stomachs.
In 1614, the first harvests from the new private plots allotted to the “ancient planters” helped shore up the corn supply, and in 1619 the first House of Burgesses ordered every settler to plant sufficient corn for survival, Alvarez writes.
Then a strategy spurred by the urge to survive was boosted still more by the discovery of the remarkable way in which corn worked hand in hand with the new cash crop of tobacco.
Easy to grow, corn left lots of time for the labor-intensive golden weed.
It also flourished in ground that tobacco had spoiled.
“Once a field had been exhausted by this cash crop, corn could be introduced,” Alvarez notes.
“Its deeper roots tap a layer of soil nutrients untouched by shallow-growing tobacco.”
Just how rapidly corn became the colony’s nutritional anchor can be seen in the 1624-25 Muster, where the reported supplies of “Indian corn” dwarfed those of European grains.
At Samuel Mathews’ plantation in Denbigh, there were 240 bushels on hand and no English wheat and oats, mirroring the stores of virtually every other planter.
“Corn is it for Virginia, and all classes of people — even the wealthy — are eating it in some shape or form every day,” says Harold Caldwell, former lead African-American foodways interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House.
“Some of the English settlers liked it. Some didn’t. But everybody had to eat it if they wanted to survive.”
Staggered plantings starting as early as April filled the colonists’ corn lofts with three harvests a year, compared to only one or two with wheat, noted English traveler William Bullock in 1649.
The demands of cultivation and harvest were comparatively small, too, giving settlers the flexibility to focus on tobacco.
“When the Europeans came, they pick up what the Indians were doing lock, stock and barrel,” says Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, whose studies of 1,500 settlers’ remains have taught him corn’s virtues.
“Unlike wheat, corn is very tolerant. It will grow in a wide variety of soils and conditions — and it’s far more resistant to disease.
“And when it comes to harvesting, you don’t have to deal with such a narrow window. You can eat it green. You can eat it yellow. And if you get behind because of the weather or the tobacco crop — that’s OK, too. You can let it dry on the stalk and pound the dried kernels into cornmeal.”
Still, employing the Indian hoe rather than the traditional English plow led quickly to tell-tale physical strains — including herniated disks and other signs of vertebral stress — that show up in the settlers’ remains.
Then there is the impact the newly adopted food had on the chemistry of their bones, replacing the Carbon 3 isotope of English wheat with the Carbon 4 of corn.
“Bone is always turning over. It’s always remodeling itself,” Owsley says, “and so the presence of corn in your diet will start to show up after a few years.”
Corn consumption affected the settlers’ dental health, too, providing a reliable preliminary marker of their places of birth.
“Who’s got worse teeth — the English or the Americans?” Owsley asks.
“It’s the Americans — and that’s because corn is more likely to lead to tooth decay than wheat.”
So productive were the settlers’ new corn fields that by 1619 they were providing fodder for Virginia’s first large herds of cattle.
By 1656, traveler John Hammond was writing about crops so large the excess was exported.
“From this industry of theirs and great plenty of Corn (the main staffe of Life) proceeded that great plenty of cattle and hogs (now innumerable),” he noted, “and out of which not only New England has been stocked and relieved but also all other parts of the Indies inhabited by Englishmen.”
But simple utility was not the only reason driving Virginia’s increasing reliance on this adopted staple.
“While tobacco meant income, corn meant sustenance — and it was very versatile,” says culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump, author of “Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine Updated for Today's Hearth and Cookstove.”
“You could cook it fresh. You could dry it, grind it up and use it to make everything from corn breads and soups to grits. William Byrd called it ‘the most useful grain in the world’ — and what he said is true.”
Indian dishes served as models for English cooks raised on wheat and oats.
But soon they added their own ingredients in ways that transformed the native originals — as with the milk, butter and eggs that changed Indian corn pudding into a savory custard.
“It’s all Native American dishes in the beginning,” Caldwell says.
“But then the English found ways to adapt them.”
They also learned to substitute corn for European grains, reworking oatmeal into such porridge-like dishes as Byrd’s beloved corn furmity.
They embraced cornmeal and a new array of flat breads cooked in ashes, Crump says.
When Africans started arriving in large numbers in the late 1600s, they brought a deep knowledge of corn that altered the Indian and English dishes still further.
Washington’s favorite hoecakes might have been a direct result, fashioned first by slaves working in the fields, then adopted by African cooks as a quick, relatively easy and — as Straube observes — unexpectedly “democratic” breakfast for the folks in the big house.
“Corn was our other mother,” Twitty told the Southern Foodways Symposium in 2017, describing how Africans — who were introduced to corn in 1500 — shared the Indians’ use of maternal terms for the life-sustaining grain.
“We were on much more familiar terms with corn than any European coming from Liverpool, Bristol or London ... We’d already had several hundred years to experiment with corn and its flavors ... So we knew exactly what to do with it in ways that they didn’t.”
One other momentous consequence sprang from the union of Africans and corn — mirroring its impact on both the Indians and the English, Twitty says.
Combined with beans and squash and regularly served twice a day, corn sustained Virginia’s blacks in ways not seen in other slave-holding countries.
“Hominy is the reason I’m standing here today,” Twitty told his audience.
“The black population in early Virginia and Maryland was the only one in the New World that was self-reproducing.”
Despite the increasing availability of wheat in the 1700s, corn remained the dominant grain in Virginia.
“There weren’t many meals here that didn’t include corn or pork,” CW foodways chief Frank Clark says, “and that continued all through the 19th century.”
The split with England intensified that embrace, persuading many planters to boost their production and consumption of humble homegrown corn.
“It became patriotic to stop growing or importing ‘English’ wheat,” Clark says.
Not until the introduction of baking soda and baking powder in the 1800s did the dining tables of Virginia and the South begin to teem with the light, fluffy corn breads that are so widely recognized today as regional culinary icons.
But even these modern dishes reached back to old Indian and African models — and many of the Yankee soldiers who saw them being consumed by locals during the Civil War considered them backward.
“Everyone here live(s) on ‘hog and hominy’ the year round,” complained one Connecticut surgeon, noting how Virginians subsisted not off standard New England wheat but rather “primitive” corn.
“That’s the thing about corn. The English used the word for any kind of cheap grain, and in America that meant Indian corn — the corn of the natives — so it was almost a derogatory term,” Clark says.
“But here you saw it everywhere because it was so useful and easy to grow. People didn’t need recipes or cookbooks because it was so common.”
George Washington’s Hoecakes
This recipe is from culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump’s “Dining with the Washingtons,” published by Mount Vernon in 2011.
Makes about 15 4- to 6-inch hoecakes
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal, divided
3 to 4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Melted butter for drizzling and serving
Honey or maple syrup for serving
1. Mix the yeast and 1 1/4 cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the water, stirring to combine thoroughly. Mix in 1/2 cup more of the water, if needed, to make a batter that is the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 200°F.
3. When ready to finish the hoecakes, begin by adding 1/2 to 1 cup of the remaining lukewarm water to the batter. Stir in the salt and the egg, blending thoroughly.
4. Gradually add the remaining 1 1/4 cups of cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a batter that is the consistency of waffle batter. Cover with a towel and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Heat a griddle on medium-high heat and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening. Preparing 1 hoecake at a time, drop a scant 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook on one side for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking until browned, another 4 to 5 minutes.
6. Remove the hoecake to a platter and set in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the cakes. Drizzle each batch with melted butter.
7. Serve warm, drizzled with lots of melted butter and honey or maple syrup.