Corn is a time for celebration. It’s in our ceremonies. It is an integral part of who we are. The most work comes in during harvest time, during the husking bee. That’s a really fun time for the kids, especially, because they get to go out in the fields and just pick, pick, pick the corn and we load up our trucks and then we drive it back to the barn. And then, we share food, we share stories. To see all of the corn hanging in the barn is just a sight to behold.
Anything that we grew, we are very thankful for. Native Americans face higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes than any other race. One of the ways that we can address that is by returning to our traditional diets.
Corn soup, a delicious soup that we have. Traditionally eaten during holiday time or during funeral time. If you were hungry today, you should’ve thought of that two days ago and started getting your things together because all Indian food is slow food. The soup takes three hours for the hulling process and then I like to cook my meat and my beans overnight in a Nesco, and so mine is a two-day process, and then, it’s gone right away.
Eating seasonally, eating the fish when the fish are running, and eating the turkeys when it’s turkey season, and eating the venison and corn, maple syrup instead of white sugar, we’ll all be healthier from that.
Oneida White Corn
- 1 quart shelled dry white corn
- 1 cup sifted hard wood ashes
- 4 quarts water (for first boiling) (16 cups)
- extra boiling hot water to add as pot of water evaporates
- cold water for rinsing
- 4 quarts water (for second boiling) (16 cups)
- Bring water to a boil, add ashes and stir. Add corn and stir often. Boil for one hour adding boiling water every 15 minutes.
- Remove corn from ash water and rinse in cold water in a metal sieve or metal colander rubbing the corn against the side to remove the hull.
- Return to fresh boiling water for one hour. Rinse again to remove any remaining hulls.
- Add to your favorite dish (e.g., bean and ham soup). Enjoy
Rebecca Webster and Laura Manthe are cousins and seemingly inseparable. They share a passion for Oneida white corn: an ancient variety dating back to the tribe’s ancestral homelands in upstate New York.
“Laura’s corn soup recipe is reservation famous!” Webster says. Historically, scarcity of the crop limited the preparation of white corn soup to special occasions such as ceremonies and funerals. To make it a staple of the Oneida diet, the cousins are a part of a cooperative collecting seeds and growing corn according to traditional practices. Preparing corn soup the Oneida way is labor-intensive but sustainable, and Webster believes it holds the key to solving many health problems plaguing their community in recent decades.
To begin making the delicacy, they use hand-picked, hand-husked corn dried in ornate braids over the course of the winter. They cook it in hardwood ashes to remove the hull and allow it to expand in size. The corn releases niacin, a vitamin known for its ability to lower high cholesterol levels. The hulling process can take up to three hours. Then, the corn is mixed with dry kidney and pinto beans, along with smoked pork hocks.
By practicing traditional Oneida ways, Webster and Manthe regain intimacy with their cultural heritage. For many years, displacement and assimilation resulted in many Native children growing up speaking only English. “Even though I grew up [on the reservation] I didn’t grow up learning the language,” says Webster, whose parents forbade her from associating with other tribal members in the Oneida longhouse down the road.
Traditional preparation of Oneida corn soup benefits other Wisconsin communities, too. To access a sustainable source of hardwood ashes, Manthe and Webster developed a relationship with the Menominee Tribe, many of whom burn hardwood to heat their homes. The Menominee now trade ashes for dehydrated corn.
Rooted in traditional growing techniques, Manthe’s sight is set on innovation. “We’re getting braver. . . using corn flour to make banana bread and fritters, but we’d like to expand and make traditional recipes from other tribes,” she says. The cousins share the story of bringing their dehydrated corn to friends in Oaxaca, Mexico, who added it to their famous Posole soup. “They loved it because it’s not the corn grown in their village,” shares Manthe. “They also joined us on a trip to Ecuador and brought these gigantic tortillas and they shared with the [Quechua] people. It was a three-way trade of knowledge, ideas and seeds!”