Corn & Chicken - Chicken & Corn

by Gretchen Hanson

Chef Gretchen Hanson tells us about Delmarva's culinary history.

In June the tiny little shoots of corn peak out of the barren spring ground. The farmers aboard their tractors lumber slowly from one field to the next while people in their out of state automobiles wait impatiently for them to pull aside; petulant and pouty to be spending twelve more minutes on the blindingly beautiful two lane country roads dripping with new bright green leaves.

Farming is in the blood here. Generation after generation work the land and grow the corn that their great great, great, grandfathers did before them. Even if your family does not work the land you are close to someone who does. The farmer on that tractor probably has about 150 mutual friends on Facebook with me and I'll bet you anything he has our Senator on speed dial as well. When I was an impatient New Yorker I might have sped past him. Not now. My livelihood depends on his in the most immediate of ways.

Corn has been here from the beginning. The Nanticoke Indians grew the very first crops of corn, beans and squash. They were non-nomadic planters that harvested from the sea and lived off the land year round. Women and children cared for lush gardens of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco.

The settlers from Europe had never seen corn before and the Nanticoke shared their wealth of information about planting and cooking flint corn. Corn does not grow wild anywhere in the world and opinions differ as to whether it was a spontaneous evolution or through human intervention. The Native Americans were the first to cultivate corn and the early Europeans settlers relied on the native corn as an essential dietary staple. Without the Nanticoke's sharing their knowledge the history of European expansion would have a different historical trajectory.

The corn of the Native Americans was an entirely different strain than what we now enjoy but the Nanticoke Indians used every part of the plant from green kernels to dried kernels to stalks and husks. Flint corn or field corn that we use for feed or hominy as well as the multicolored corn we see decorating the harvest table is far closer to the original than the sweet corn we consume today.

Thanks to a whole bunch of Quakers brought here by the promise of religious freedom, Delaware's commercial grain industry was born. Soft red wheat was the first major cash crop and the revolution of flour milling with the automated grist mill by Oliver Evans made Delaware an agricultural heavyweight. Mills had not advanced technologically much since the Middle Ages and by virtue of Evans invention mills were suddenly capable of being operated by only one person. Interestingly enough, the automated grist mill was one of the first patents granted in the US and the patent was signed by the new President, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And just another little history nerd fact to thrill you, all fresh standing bodies of water in Delaware are actually man made and created to run these mills.

The modern poultry industry has its origins with Cecile Steele from Ocean View. She was shipped 500 rather than her regular 50 peeps in Easter 1923 and she expanded her broiler business by using larger houses to raise her birds. Today poultry production is an economic cornerstone of the entire Delmarva Peninsula and Sussex County is the No. 1 County in the United States for poultry production. Poultry accounts for more than 70 percent of Delaware's annual farm cash receipts. A substantial portion of the state's grain production (corn and soybeans) also directly supports the poultry industry. Poultry's economic impact cannot be overestimated when you examine Delaware.

Not only has poultry become a focus of the Eastern Shores culinary arts, immigration to the region has had a huge impact on exposure to spices, regional cuisines and the intermarriage which occurs when native traditions are blended in new and unusual ways. Immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, have come to this country to work in the poultry plants and with immigrants come the grocery stores that cater to them, spices that are indigenous and restaurants that serve regional cuisine which blend produce and proteins that are readily available with new techniques.

With the agricultural immigrant also came back the original corn and techniques of the Native Americans in the form of masa which is field corn that is dried and turned into hominy. The mature grain is soaked in slaked lime and ash in a process called nixtamalization. This process breaks down the glue like components of the cellulose walls and allows the corn to be formed into dough. It frees the nutritionally rich niacin so that it can easily be absorbed into the digestive tract as well as balances the amino acids which allow the proteins to be more biologically available.

Masa is the main ingredient of most Latin cuisine. Tortillas, gorditas, tamales, huaraches, papusas all these are based on masa and with the agricultural workers came the new dishes and ingredients that they brought with them… Moles, enchiladas, ceviches, Pozole… these are just some of the culinary gifts from the men and women that came to pluck the almighty bird.

Breaking away from the traditional fried chicken houses and crab barns came chef pioneers like Matt Haley, Sydney Arzt and Leo Medisch; organic farmers like Sue Ryan and Ted Wycall paved the way for the generations of newcomers like me to find an area verdant with culinary possibilities and potential for growth in a direction that can only be imagined.

It is the first sign of summer every year. The plowing of the fields that makes way for the crops of corn greeting you at every bend and long stretch of the road. Bright shimmery silver green swords reach to the sky, growing varietals far different from four hundred years ago. "As high as your eye on the Fourth of July," my children shout loudly as we wait behind each tractor.

You can give it the barest seconds in the simmering pot and slather it with Lewes Dairy Creamery butter Sussex Style as I did when I was a child or grill maiz esquites with cumin, chile, queso cotijo and lime as I do now. Just get ready to take the first bite. It's delicious out there.


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