From corn on the cob to hominy, hominy grits, corn meal, masa, and all the recipes you can make from them–maize/corn has been the most important ingredient in American history. And that includes history on this continent before their was an America or any Europeans.
In listing the foods included in his rations, Erasmus mentions hominy. That may be a little surprising, since hominy is thought of more as a Southern staple, particularly when the North embargoed shipments to the South and they could not get wheat flour. But there it was in his letter from Kanawah Virginia in November, “…either rice or beans or hominy.”
If we eat hominy now, it is liable to be from a can, already rinsed free of they lye that it is made with. Or we eat it ground into grits. But what Erasmus got in his rations, hominy, like the beans, would be dried and take rinsing, overnight soaking and then long simmering before it could be eaten.
Reading food history always leads me to speculate how the heck people (meaning women) discovered some of this stuff in the first place. Hominy is a good example. Why take a perfectly good grain with a variety of uses and soak it in lye or wood ash so that it swells up and then you have to wash it several times before you can use it? And when she first discovered the process, she could not go to the corner store and by a jug of lye. She first had to figure out the process of extracting lye from wood ash.
There are several good reasons why a woman might have experimented with this process. To get meal out of corn requires a long grinding process. You’ll see grinding stones as artifacts in many museums.
Native women in the Americas spent long hours kneeling in front of that stone grinding the corn in order to get a meal, and get rid of the hull.
The hominy-making process not only swells the grains and makes them softer, but it separates the hull and gets rid of the germ which will make the corn spoil in storage.
“What a great discovery!” she thought! If I mix the corn kernels with some ashes and water and let it sit, I don’t have to kneel and bend my back over that dratted stone for so long. The meal will last longer. And the hull is gone.”
The softer swollen kernels are still used today in Mexican and American Indian posole –a stew of hominy and pork and chiles. But those hominy kernels could be dried and then ground. (Back to the grinding stone!) The resulting finely ground corn meal can be purchased today at the grocery store (particularly in the Southwest where I live) as Masa, used to make corn tortillas. The chemical process for making hominy means that you can use the hominy meal without flour to make dough–a great boon to the indigenous people of the Americas and also to the Civil War soldiers.
Or, if it is ground more coarsely, you have hominy grits–that Southern American breakfast staple. Old cook books specify large hominy and small hominy, and in the cook book of Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book that I recently discovered, large means the whole kernel and small means meal. Several Southern food websites that discuss Southern food, like this one by the author of The Story of Corn, confirm that. (This is a delightful article that includes some delicious recipes for grits and hominy.)
So how did the Civil War soldiers use that dried hominy they got in their rations? My brother gives this suggestion:
It could be mushed up into a “sloosh” with lard (if you had it ) water (if you had it) and an egg (if you could steal one) and wrapped around a stick and poked in the fire to make a sooty corndog (without the dog). P.W. Kaser
Of course, that mixing of ground corn meal or hominy with lard and water and an egg (if you could steal one) can turn it into pone, which generally is poured into a cast iron skillet or dutch oven and baked either on the stove top or in the oven. I made a tasty pone by using bacon grease instead of lard, and mixing in a cup of mashed sweet potatoes.
Back home, the housewives could get fancier with hominy, as this Baked Hominy recipe from Common sense in the household: A manual of practical housewifery by Marion Harland (1871) suggests.
I had one disagreement with the recipe, as you will see if you read the recipe below. The result is an airy on top, heavier on the bottom, relative tasteless pudding that would probably not find a place as a side dish on today’s table. However with some added sugar and maybe a little flavoring, it could make a passable dessert.