Cornbread, grits and moonshine. Grilled, broiled, roasted or popped. Smothered in butter, salt and pepper. Creamed or cooked to perfection in casseroles. Corn is the backbone of many iconic southern dishes.
Corn has been a pillar of southern foodways and culture for centuries. “It was first domesticated in Mexico many thousands of years ago,” says Archaeologist Vin Steponaitis. “It gets to the South around the start of the Christian era…[but] corn was here for 1,000 years before it took off.”
Corn became an integral to Native American foodways, rituals, and folklore. The Cherokee celebrated Selu, the ancestral mother of corn, who gifted the tribe corn to ensure their survival. Southeastern North Carolinian tribes also revered the crop. “My mother said that she grew up knowing corn as the staff of life,” says historian and Lumbee Malinda Maynor Lowery. “It could be used in so many ways. It was the kind of ingredient from which there was very little waste. You could eat the kernels, but you could also use the cobs to feed your pigs.” Popular narratives about Southern foodways may understate corn’s Native American origins. “You can say that Indians don’t do anything different with corn than any other southerners,” says Lowery, “But that’s because southerners learned it from us.”
As food scholar Marcie Cohen Ferris writes in the The Edible South, by the early eighteenth-century corn was a notable part of white settlers and enslaved African-American’s diet. It made its way into southern material culture, too. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture lists dozens of non-food related uses for corn including corn cob pipes, plugs, kindling, back scratchers and paper.
Today, planted after the threat of frost, sweet corn flourishes alongside tomatoes, beans and squash in summer vegetable gardens across the state. “Putting up” corn is as common as canning beans and freezing fresh summer fruit. Fresh, preserved, or cured, chefs and ordinary folks across the south use corn in its many forms throughout the year. Renowned southern Chef Bill Smith of Crook's Corner, who was elevating southern food before it was hip to do so, is a big fan of the grain. Just in time for peak corn season, we introduce Bill’s own twist on the classic succotash salad.
Bill Smith's Succotash Salad
This is a summer salad, and it is likely to change a little every time you make it. It is based on the classic vegetable stew of corn, tomatoes and lima beans but as the season proceeds, things like field peas and pole beans will be welcome additions. Use this as a guide rather than as a formal recipe. It is hard to make a small amount of this dressing, but it is good on all sorts of other things and it keeps well in the refrigerator.
In a restaurant, there are likely to be odds and ends left over that you wouldn’t ordinarily find in a home kitchen. We often have leftover grilled corn which works nicely in a salad. There are leftovers from tomatoes sliced for sandwiches or other salads that can be diced and tossed in. In the recipe below, we will start everything from scratch, but keep your eyes open for handy leftovers.
For the Dressing
½ cup boiling water
¾ cup Dijon mustard
A scant half cup of apple cider vinegar
1 ½ cups good olive oil
Bring water to a boil in a sauce pan. Measure out a half a cup and pour it into the bowl of a food processor with the mustard and the vinegar. With the machine running, slowly add the oil in a thin stream. The sauce will emulsify into the thickness of a salad dressing.
For the Salad
3 large ears of fresh corn on the cob
4 cups of shelled butterbeans
½ pound prepped string beans
2 large ripe tomatoes
3 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Remember, you are salting for the volume of water not what you are cooking in it. It should taste as salty as you want the vegetables to taste. Add the corn and let it cook for about four minutes. Refresh in a bowl of ice water, but don’t leave it to soak. Set the corn aside.
In the same boiling water, cook the beans. The time required to do this will vary because beans vary in size and starchiness. Start tasting them after four minutes or so of boiling. You want them to be tender but not mushy. Refresh in ice water and drain at once. Spread them out on a clean dish towel to dry a bit. Repeat with the string beans.
Cut the tomatoes into large dice. Don’t worry about the seeds or the peeling. Cut the corn kernels from the cobs. Toss the tomatoes, corn and beans together in a large bowl with a tablespoon or two of the dressing and the cheese. Taste to see if you want more dressing. Serve cold on leaves of romaine lettuce.