In several previous issues of Heirloom Gardener I have written about a number of unique Native American corns that came into the Roughwood Seed Collection as seriously endangered. Since these cultivars were entrusted to me with the idea of preserving and increasing them for the future, I have been engaged in growing out these corns a few at a time, not only to create accurate descriptors for otherwise unknown cultivars, but also to determine what use these corns may have today, aside from their obvious cultural importance to the tribes of origin.
One of these cultivars has come close to extinction several times, but I think we now have enough to ensure its survival and perhaps eventually to share seed with the Delaware Nation who originated it. I am referring here to ‘Sand Hill Gray Flint,’ a corn that came to me without name in 1989, a gift from the late James “Lone Bear” Revy (1924-1998), who was at the time chief of the Sand Hill Band of Lenape in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
The Sand Hill peoples belong to the Unamispeaking branch of the Lenape or Delaware Nation (with some 18th-century intermarriage with Cherokees) and now represent the only group of Lenape still left in New Jersey from colonial times. Indeed they are the only fully recognized group still residing in the region known as Lenepehocking, the ancient homeland of the Delaware Nation, which once stretched from New York to Maryland and included most of what is now New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At the time (1989) I had contacted James Revy and invited him to speak at an international food conference I organized at the Balch Institute in Philadelphia, and my European guests found him enchanting. One of the great passions he shared with us was his love for the material and spiritual culture of his people, and he was in all respects an eloquent spokesperson on those subjects.
After the conference, he and I kept in touch and since he was aware of my interest in food and horticulture, our discussions invariably turned to corn and to some of the vague references to native Lenape corns that appeared in colonial records. One day, James sent me a package of gray flint corn with the annotation that only one or two families still maintained it and would I know of a way to keep it going?
It was a strange-looking corn indeed because the kernels were dull steel gray; the cobs were small, most no longer than 4 inches, with seven to eight rows per cob. My first question to James was: What was it used for? He wasn’t sure, but thought it might be a “milk corn,” that is, a corn formerly eaten “green” like sweet corn. Some old people in his community had pickled the nubbins (baby ears), but beyond that its history was murky, aside from the fact that James was convinced that it was old — just how old was another issue altogether. On the one hand, it was puzzling to me that it had survived this long without more oral history attached to it, but in looking through collections of Iroquois corns, I did find similar gray flints, although nothing exactly like the one from Sand Hill. Not knowing what I had, and wanting to put the problem on hold for awhile, I froze the corn for later trial.
Over the ensuing years, I occasionally grew out the corn and every time was rather taken with the plants. They had a character all of their own: They were bushy in habit, sometimes they even branched off on the side where a cob is supposed to develop. One plant might create many little suckers around the base and thus transform itself from one plant into four or five. And since the stalks never reached more than 6 feet in height, it was easy to visualize this corn arranged in hills, old Indian style, a perfect trellis for a traditional Lenape bean (Shackamaxon for example).
Since the corn matured in 90 to 100 days (from planting seed to fully dry cob), it also seemed to fit into the succession of planting that must have taken place when the Lenape were growing many types of corn for different culinary or ceremonial purposes. Their transformation from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists took place in the 17th century, so probably from a genetic standpoint all of the old corns associated with the modern Delaware Nation and its affiliates came to them from other groups in the area (like the Shawnee) who were already settled in as agriculturists prior to colonial contact.
No matter, these corns were once a significant dimension of native diet and religion, and doubtless today, there is probably no corn more iconic of the Sand Hill peoples and their convoluted history than this old gray flint cultivar. One remaining question begs asking: Does it cook well? It makes wonderful mush; it is excellent as large hominy, and James Revy was right: It is superb as a “milk corn” eaten raw right off the cob.
Historians have left many descriptions of the Lenape Feast of the Green Corn, and since this gray flint moves very quickly from tassel to young, tender cobs, I can well imagine it taking a place of honor on a hot muggy night, whippoorwills calling out in the depths of the nearby forest, a meal fit to honor the oncoming harvest under the shimmering light of a full summer moon.