Ark of Taste
Sea Island White Flint Corn
For 300 years prior to European arrival, Sea Island White Flint Corn was a Native American crop that thrived in the Sea Islands of the South, especially South Carolina and Georgia. While dent corn (the alternative to flint corn) predominated over much of the American South, in the coastal zones the corn weevil existed in such destructive concentrations that soft-skinned dents could not survive their onslaught. Only the tough-kernelled flints resisted the depredations of the insects. It is believed that Native Americans used White Flint corn in almost every way possible for consumption—milled, parched, as whole hominy, and green.
After European arrival, this variety became a plantation provision corn for slaves, valued for its great nutritive quality; in the post-bellum era, it was grown as a high-end market corn. Sea Island White Flint Corn became an essential culinary grain of the coastal South. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, by the 1860s, White Flint Corn was considered the most delicate for table use and the most valuable in every respect, and the US census of 1880 described Sea Island White Flint Corn as “the finest, as food for man, of all the known varieties.”
Sea Island White Flint Corn is a landrace variety with high-density starch in its kernels, a tall habit of growth, and great drought and insect tolerance. Corn comes in many classes of plant shape, ear shape, and kernel shape and hardness; flint corn kernel tops are more rounded, similar to kernels of popcorn, and typically have hardened starch in the center, making them tough to mill but easy to store. Sea Island White Flint is typically grown as a one-eared corn, and on occasion two-eared, and the ears contain twelve rows of white, round, thick grains that are filled with a snowy white flour composed mostly of starch, with neither gluten nor oil.
Before milling, this corn is hard and dry, which is very different from the sweet corn introduced to American cuisine relatively recently. Additionally, this white corn is generally less manipulated from its Native American origins than sweet yellow corn. The plant has retained its signature features over the centuries, particularly its density of nutritive starch. And thanks to its rich history of coastal growth, this species can withstand saline environments better than standard corn varieties.
In the 1880s, other methods of milling supplanted stone milling by burred stones. Flint corn did not suit the new technology and growers turned to easier-milling dents for meal. Additionally, conventional agricultural methods fail Sea Island White Flint Corn: standard practice fertilizing makes the leaves too bushy, the stalk too tall, and the seeds susceptible to lodging, and maintaining genetic clarity and flavor robustness can be difficult when scaling up landrace grains. Besides unforgiving industrial agriculture, the season of corn harvest also threatened Sea Island White Flint Corn’s existence as it coincided with the season of picking cotton. Often farmers destroyed the corn to make room for the lucrative cash crop.
By 1910, Sea Island White Flint had ceased to be a crop corn and survived only in patches and in seed libraries. It wasn’t until 2009 that farmers began to produce this kind of White Flint corn again in an attempt to recreate just a few of the thousands of corn varieties and dishes that were lost in the industrial era. Securing seed collected in 1905 by a USDA field worker in Edisto, SC, modern food revivalists reintroduced the crop to South Carolina. Today, Sea Island White Flint Corn is typically grown for mill as an ingredient in dishes such as grits and cornbread, found in South Carolina on certain high-end menus and at some farmers markets.
As a recently revived crop, long absent from the fields of the United States, Sea Island White Flint has slowly been increasing in seed stock and production from 2009 to the present day. As of 2015, the growers were either contracted by Anson Mills or were given seed by the Carolina Gold Rice Plantation. Tris Waystack of St. Mathews, SC, is one of the select half dozen growers. As of 2015, five years of growing by these experienced organic farmers is gradually returning the variety to a semblance of the taste described in historical accounts.
Photo courtesy of David Shields.