Hominy: An Original Native American Dish History, Process, and Nutritional Value of Traditional Hominy Among the Eastern Woodland Peoples By Jessica Diemer-Eaton (originally published with Yahoo!Voices
Dark hulls loosening from kernels during the hominy processing.
Hominy, a dish popularly attributed to classic Southern American cuisine, is actually an original dish of the Native Peoples. In fact, the word "hominy" is derived from the Virginia Indian term "rockahominy” possibly referring to corn or parched corn meal. It was shortened to its suffix "hominy," creating the popular term applied to corn treated with alkali, that being traditionally ash-lye (Eastern Native American) or lime (Southwest Native American). This treatment is known today as nixtamalization. Today, food producers 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 Eastern Woodland Peoples treated their corn (predominantly that of eastern 8-row variety by AD1200) with alkali for many reasons, most noticeably for taste. The process imparted a pleasant flavor. It also softened flint corns, a variety whose name conveys the hardness of this strain. Flint corns were a popular corn variety among the northeastern tribes – many small 8-row flint corns being quicker to mature, giving Native farmers the ability to cultivate corn in regions with shorter growing seasons such as the northern of the Great Lakes and New England (such 8-row corns were grown as far north as Ontario, Canada by AD800). Making corn into hominy also boosted its nutritional value for humans, humans being unable to absorb all of corn’s nutrients as is (although technically the process hurt the overall nutritional value of the corn itself). The alkali bath helped to release lysine and tryptophan amino acids and niacin (niacin being a member of the vitamin B complex) in the corn, presenting more nutrients that can be digested and absorbed when consumed. Lack of niacin in a diet, such as one based so much on corn consumption, 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 solution. The ashes were mixed with water, and the solution heated with the corn kernels. For some, just heating the mixture was enough to make hominy, while others insisted on beating the corn and ash mixture with pestles to agitate the kernels (often the whole kernels were cracked in this process, as was noted to be done by Iroquois/Haudenosaunee cooks). After a time, the ash-lye burned away at the hull (loosening it) and swelled the kernel's starchy interior. It also killed the seeds’ germs, which insured the corn would not spoil by sprouting, allowing dried hominy to be stored easily for long periods. The lye water was then discarded, and the hominy was rinsed several times to rid it of extra lye residues. This was often done in baskets made just for the job of hominy rinsing, accomplished by either pouring water over the hominy-filled sieve or lowering the basket with its contents into the gentle current of a stream or river. A little bit ashes were fine to ingest (some might even say good for seasoning), but large amounts that created a lye were harmful 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, often 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 a couple hours, and flavored it with animal fat (and sometimes salt, should they have a pinch). The Native Peoples also combined hominy with other ingredients like beans and pieces of meat. One Cherokee tradition calls for cooking hominy in kanuchi – a traditional hickory nut broth. 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 (some Cherokee bean breads using a hominy paste as its cornmeal base). Some Southeastern Native dishes, like sofkee, called for ash-treated corn as the main ingredient. Hominy, dried for later use, could be hydrated and eaten whole - one Delaware (Lenape) source insists the water from cooking dried hominy should be discarded a few times to improve the taste. Or the dried hominy could be ground into meal. Hominy meal made a Native pudding-like dish know today as grits. Fine hominy meal was used just the same as dry cornmeal in some cornbreads, and although such use of this ingredient was prevalent in the east, it is the Mexican-Indian tortillas that most associate with alkali-treated cornmeal.
Sources: -“Kanuchi” Chreokee Nation Website: http://www.cherokee.org/AboutTheNation/Culture/CookBook/Kanuchi.aspx-“Lenape Indian Cooking” with Touching Leaves Woman (Nora Thompson Dean)-"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.