Growing Heirloom Gourdseed Corn

Today’s bland hybrid corns are a casualty of the industry’s focus on mass production and multi-purpose. Why not try growing heirloom gourdseed corn, a variety rich with history and flavor?

| October/November 2008

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Growing Heirloom Gourdseed Corn

Anyone looking for the old-fashioned taste that made Southern corn bread famous need look no further than the Old South dent corn called “gourdseed.” With flat, cream-colored kernels that resemble skinny pumpkin seeds — some Native Americans referred to them as “teeth” — this is a soft-kernelled, late-maturing variety with rich flavor. Its texture is ideal for dumplings, puddings, flat breads and even pound cake, provided it’s sifted well.

Prior to the Civil War, this was the most widespread type of corn grown in the South, but it was eventually replaced by grittier hybrids that required baking powder or other chemical leaveners to make them light. That two-for-one “improvement,” a corn for grits as well as bread, appealed to commercial growers and processing mills, but at a cost to quality and flavor. Most of all, we lost the silken texture that gave old-time corn breads their delightful character.

Gourdseed corn belongs to an old family of flavorful Southern dent corns that includes ‘Shoepeg’ and several others that trace their ancestry to ancient Mexican teosinte, a primitive corn-like plant from which today’s corn descends. (Dent corn gets its name from the dimple found in the top of the kernel.) However, these Southern dent corns come from a separate line of domestication than the other corns in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Gourdseed’s dissemination among North American peoples prior to the colonial period was fairly widespread. The Iroquois grew it in New York under the name “tooth corn.” According to their oral tradition, they carried it north from what is now Ohio, which appears to tally with our historical records, since the Ohio River Valley quickly became the heartland for this type of corn during the early 19th century.

Two variations, yellow and white, were prized by settlers. While the yellow was consumed by the rural poor, the white was popular in the urban Deep South, and that association with refinement and status may be one of the reasons Southerners still prefer white cornmeal today. Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., grows and sells corn products derived from a white gourdseed corn variety called ‘Carolina Gourdseed,’ a local selection.

1/19/2009 1:30:59 PM

While I don't have any white gourdseed corn (yet!), I do mill my own yellow corn flour (much finer than the standard commercial cornbread). So I tried the recipe for Spider Cornbread as-is (twice), and without a doubt it's the best cornbread I ever made! I make it in a 9-inch cast iron skillet and it comes out fine. Doesn't seem to rise as high as the illustration, but it rises plenty, and is a very light texture and unique flavor. I can't wait to plant some gourdseed corn this spring and make it for real next fall! Thanks for a(nother) interesting and informative article. :-)

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