Now and Then – Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Bread is sometimes called “the staff of life.” Among pre-modern South Georgia farmers, corn was the staff of life grain for bread and other foods for people and their animals. Wheat flour was used daily for biscuits and occasionally for cakes, cookies and pie crusts, but some form of cornbread or grits graced eating tables at every meal.

By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, corn was widely used by Native Americans, who, over thousands of years, had developed maize from seeded grass just as other grains had been developed in other parts of the world. It fared well in the soil and climate of the South, better than strains of wheat brought from Europe by settlers. Few locals grew wheat. Flour was imported and purchased on occasional market trips to cities like Savannah, at river landings served by steam boats or at small town stores. Rice, a popular side dish, was mostly grown on the coast except in Louisiana and on “branch head” plots by a few farmers.

Corn, as “people food,” took many forms, mostly as bread and the ground grain dish called grits. The best known bread form was hoe cake, cooked on top of a stove in a shallow iron skillet oiled with lard. The name “hoe cake” came from the practice of field workers — beginning with female slaves — of taking corn meal, oil and water with them to work. Handles were attached to hoes by round eyes at the top, which allowed the handles to be removed easily. Then hoes became utensils to cook bread over small fires. Small hoe cakes became the center of quick field side meals. The name stuck. Stove-top cornbread, even fancy lacy cornbread, is a hoe cake.

Deep dish cornbread is basically the same cornmeal and water cooked in an oiled deep skillet in the oven. It tastes different, but takes longer to cook. Hush puppies are cornmeal with varying seasonings rolled into round nuggets and deep fried. Some people favor this bread to complement fried fish, but hoe cakes work just as well.

The typical country breakfast featured grits — corn ground more coarsely than meal — and boiled in carefully salted water until soft. Flavored with gravy or butter and partnered with various meats like cured ham or sausage and biscuits, grits prepared folks for a morning of hard work. The same or similar repast might also be served for supper. Add homemade syrup and it was a tasty meal, though heavy on carbohydrates and light on fresh vegetables, which were served at noon (dinner).

In season, fresh corn from field or garden was another favorite food. Creamed corn tasted best, but “roastin’ ears” literally roasted in the oven worked well as a side dish or snack. And cornbread dressing was necessary to go with roasted turkey or hen.

Most families had dogs and cats — service animals against varmints and vermin — and these also depended upon corn for food. They got cornbread and grits along with meat and bones in table scraps and more hoe cakes cooked up if necessary. That diet was low on fresh meat, but they were adept in catching varmints and vermin. Chickens, so necessary for eggs and food — fryers or baking hens  got daily rations of corn.

Corn was central in food for draft animals, mostly mules. It was served up in their feed troughs still on the cob and in the shuck along with hay in good times. They devoured the shucks and neatly cleaned the grains off the cobs. Having hardy, well-fed mules was crucial for farmers.

Both cows and hogs foraged in the woods under free range rule until well into the 1950s. Careful farmers called them up to the homestead and fed them some corn each day. Some people penned their milk cows at night and gave them extra feed to help them produce plenty of milk. As soon as cotton and corn for the next year were harvested, hogs and cows were released into fields to feed on corn, peanuts and other things planted to fatten them for sale or slaughter for food for the family.

Corn was gathered as soon as possible in autumn and stored in cribs, simple buildings surrounded by mule/horse lots (areas fenced with sturdy boards), stalls and pens for cows and hogs. Unfortunately, cribs were vulnerable to mice, rats and weevils.

In addition to animal feed, corn produced grain for human consumption. After shucks were removed, ears of corn were run through a hand-turned sheller to remove kernels when it was time to “go to mill.” Originally, mills were driven by water power and might be used either to saw lumber or grind grain. 

By the 20th century, saw mills had become specialized and grist mills turned corn into grits or meal. Farmers paid for millers’ services with cash or by having a portion of their grain “tolled” by millers as a source of revenue. In time, water or steam power gave way to gasoline engines, which were not affected by drought or boiler malfunctions.

For generations, South Georgia farmers planted white corn and carefully saved seed from year to year. White corn is best for meal and grits and farm animals will eat anything. The yellow hybrid varieties grown in the Midwest produced more bushels per acre, but did not suit taste preferences down South. 

Along came a hybrid developed for the South, Dixie-18, which farmers liked for its productivity. They could buy meal and grits with the extra profit from this and other hybrids that followed. Going to mill to have corn ground into meal or grits became a thing of the past.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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