Ark of Taste
Jimmy Red Corn
Zea mays indentata
Jimmy Red Corn is an open-pollinated dent corn with stalks that grow between six and ten feet tall in South Carolina, though its height may change if planted in other regions. On average, it produces up to two ears per stalk which reach between ten and twelve inches and contain about thirteen rows of kernels per ear. While in its milk stage, it appears yellow like many standard varieties of field corn, but upon maturing and drying the kernels turn a deep red color. This variety has some of the most unique visual and genetic characteristics of any red corn. To this day, it remains one of the most interesting and talked about Southern heirloom corn varieties within local markets, creating a certain mystique around its history and availability.
James Island, or “Jimmy,” Red Corn is very aromatic and has a rich, sweet taste, contributing to the creation of a variety of culinary goods. It can be milled to produce cornmeal and grits, though some of the red coloration may be lost when processed in this way due to the separation and cracking of the bran from the rest of the kernel; because of this, the coloration may not be imparted to cooked and baked goods made with this variety, depending on how it is milled.
Jimmy Red Corn is thought to have been cultivated and used by Native Americans, though a specific tribe is unknown, and it was later brought to South Carolina by Richard Humphries of Screven, Georgia around 1910. Its production once contributed greatly to the sustenance of people in the areas of Georgia and South Carolina, but it was mostly forgotten in favor of other varieties of corn as industrial agricultural production became mainstream in these areas. For many years, Jimmy Red Corn was considered to be an endangered strain.
James Island local Ted Chewning fought the looming extinction of the variety by growing it and saving its seeds. Chewning was contacted by Virginia native chef Sean Brock, who moved to Charleston, South Carolina and became interested in preserving Southern culinary traditions as well as Southern heirloom vegetables and livestock varieties. Brock convinced Chewning to part with a few ears, thus beginning the process of growing and using the corn himself. Since then, Brock has worked with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Professor David Shields of the University of South Carolina to put Jimmy Red Corn back into agricultural and culinary production. Another individual who has strived to save and preserve this strain is Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Market & Mill, who has been growing the strain for five years and currently holds the largest group of viable seed stock of Jimmy Red Corn.
The culinary uses of Jimmy Red Corn in South Carolina are exciting and expanding. Sean Brock, owner of the restaurants Husk and McCrady’s, cooks Jimmy Red Corn in his traditional Southern dishes like shrimp and grits; in 2015, Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Market & Mill milled the corn for grits and cornmeal for the first time; and Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, SC are brewing a 100% Jimmy Red corn whiskey--leaving the still at 140-160 proof and aged in new oak barrels--made to the standards of American whiskey, presented in its purest form to celebrate the uniqueness and quality of this corn variety.