Hominy, a dish popularly attributed to American Southern cuisine, is actually an original dish of the Native Peoples of the northeastern United States, among other regions. The word “hominy” is derived from the Virginia Indian term “rockahominy,” which was a noted Powhatan food (possibly referring to corn or parched corn meal). It was shortened to its suffix “hominy,” creating the popular term applied to corn treated traditionally with ash alkali (northeast Native American) or lime (southwest Native American). This treatment is referred to as nixtamalization. Today, manufacturers use sodium hydroxide and other types of lye chemicals in place of ash alkali, and calcium oxide (quicklime) in Mexican hominy and tortilla cornmeal.
The northeastern Native American Peoples treated Flint corn with alkali for many reasons, most noticeably for taste. The process imparted a pleasant flavor. It also softened the Flint corn, a variety whose name conveys the hardness of this strain. Flint corns were the most popular corn variety among the northern American and Canadian tribes – Flint corn being much more cold tolerate, growing in areas of lower summer averages, and quicker maturing giving Native farmers the ability to cultivate corn in regions with shorter growing seasons.
Making corn into hominy also boosted the nutritional value of corn in societies who relied largely on corn-based diets. The alkali helped to release lysine and tryptophan amino acids and niacin (niacin being a member of the vitamin B complex). Lack of niacin in a diet, such as one based so much on corn, can lead to diseases like pellagra (a disease caused by a dietary deficiency of niacin, causing many complications including disorders of the central nervous system).
The basic process of hominy making in eastern Native America started with the alkali. Hardwood ashes were documented as prime material to make the lye. The ashes were mixed with water, and the solution heated with the dried Flint corn kernels. After a time, the lye burned away the hull and swelled the kernel’s starchy interior. It also killed the seed’s germ, which insured the corn would not spoil by sprouting, allowing dried hominy to be stored indefinitely. The lye water was then discarded, and the hominy was rinsed several times to rid it of extra lye residues. A little bit ashes were fine to ingest, but large amounts that created the lye were poisonous if consumed. The clean hominy could then be prepared for a meal right away, or dried for later use.
Hominy whole kernels were boiled and eaten alone, usually with animal fat for flavor. This was not only a favored dish of the Woodland Indian Peoples, but was reported to be a usual daily dish for many voyagers. While in the field, the traders boiled a quart or so of prepared hominy for about a couple hours, and flavored it with animal fat and sometimes salt, should they have a pinch. The Native Peoples also combined other ingredients like beans and pieces of meat into the hominy as well. Soft whole hominy was sometimes mashed and eaten as a hominy pudding, or baked in cornhusk envelopes, or shaped into patties that were shallow fried in grease. The dried whole kernels could be hydrated and eaten whole, or, ground into meal. Courser meal made puddings, a dish we know today as grits. Finer meal was used for dry cornmeal bread mix, and although such use of this ingredient was prevalent in the northeast, it is the Mexican-Indian tortillas that most associate with alkali-treated cornmeal.
-“Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America,” by James Axtell.
-“Parker on the Iroquois,” by Arthur C. Parker
-“Plants from the Past,” by Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler.
-“Societies in Eclipse: Archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands Indians, A.D. 1400-1700,” edited by David S. Brose, C. Wesley Cowan, and Robert C. Mainfort Jr.