Monday, July 2, 2012

Rhode Island Cornmeal Competition: And the winner is. . .

Well, I am back in Little Compton and, after all the strange detours, from prickly pear to cocktails (I have received a few funny emails on the latter), it seemed appropriate to re-immerse myself in all things Rhode Island as quickly as possible. For a few years I’ve been meaning to do a side-by-side comparison of the three local, indeed native, stone-ground cornmeals we are lucky enough to have in our little state, Little Rhody.  These are, for the not-from-heres reading this, those from Carpenter’s Grist Mill in Perryville (near Moonstone Beach), Gray’s Grist Mill in Adamsville Village (Little Compton, on the Westport, MA line), and Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaugh (West Kingston). 

I hope you note that I listed those alphabetically. Everyone here knows that venturing into cornmeal territory is venturing into blind and irrational loyalties as potentially tempestuous as the waters between Point Judith and Block Island. In fact, it’s plunging the battle between thick and thin johnnycakes deeper, to its raw—literally—core. So I approach this three-way throwdown with not a little trepidation—and a huge sense of responsibility. Because I must be, of course, objective.

Much as I adore johnnycakes and they are the ultimate use for this marvelous grain, I knew it would be hard to eat them without maple syrup. I settled on something as old, and as plain: corn pone. These I could eat out of hand, taking bites first from one, then another, without the syrup’s perfect compatibility intruding on corny purity.

The first order of this serious business was comparing the meals themselves. I examined my conscience before beginning, as two are West of Bay products, and one is, like Little Compton, East of Bay. Fortunately I have lived on both sides of the bay and can say, truly, that my loyalties are divided, which in this case seems to be all for the good as I am simply like a boat in the middle of the bay, familiar with each shore and indifferent to where I put up.  I am neutral, like Switzerland in any similar war.

I poured ¼ cup out on an old, honey-colored board. As you can see, the Kenyon’s was visibly different:  whiter, finer. While the color of Carpenter’s and Gray’s look similar, looked at closely the Gray’s was more variegated looking, with little dots of yellow and black as if a blend of some sort, and its texture—all were tested by rubbing between my fingers—was finer; not as fine as Kenyon’s, but markedly more so than Carpenter’s.  In fact, it seemed a little dusty or powdery whereas Kenyon’s was fine but still definitely a grain. Carpenter’s rougher look was, in that sense and compared to Gray’s, more integral to the product. 

I did taste them raw. Let’s just say that cornmeal is meant to be cooked with moisture and preferably salt, much like flour: it is just as dry and carboardy on the tongue.  But there were was at least one discernible difference: Carpenter’s was sweeter. Kenyon’s and Gray’s, despite looking different, tasted quite similar—dull and a little bitter. 

Game of me to try (I thought), but tasting raw was not a fair test, and I quickly moved on; the proof is in the pudding, as they say. I made very plain corn pone according to the recipe below—three batches using the three different cornmeals. I shaped it into traditional little round cakes and baked them (these are a version of an old-fashioned “journey cake,” sturdy and sustaining), and I also fried one of each in butter (which reminded me of these gorditas a little).

I had little trouble deciding among them: they were quite distinct. The Kenyon’s was blander, blonder, creamier-textured but not as interesting. It stood alone to one side. The Carpenter’s had a strong corn flavor with the combination bitter-sweet edge that a good johnnycake has. It also had the most attractive color and surface texture. The Gray’s fell in between—more interesting than the Kenyon’s, but short in appearance, texture, and taste to the Carpenter’s.

I want to go on record saying that all of these stoneground cornmeals are quality products. But Carpenter’s was the clear winner. There may be a good reason: it is also the only one of the three that is still made from 100% Rhode Island whitecap flint cornmeal, the original Indian variety that has dwindled in availability because it is somewhat difficult to grow and has lower yields than other white corns.  I remember when Gray’s stopped using it, and Kenyon’s, a large operation, switched before them. Carpenter’s is, in that sense, the last remaining mill to provide the authentic johnnycake meal. Try some while you still can.

Corn Pone

4 c RI stoneground white cornmeal
½ c lard
½ tea baking soda
1 ½ tea salt
1-1 ½ c boiling water
Buttermilk as needed, up to 1 c

Preheat the oven to 350F. Work the lard into the cornmeal with your fingers as you would for pastry.  Dissolve the baking soda and salt into the boiling water and add it gradually to the cornmeal mixture, stirring until it is well-moistened. Add enough buttermilk to make a stiff but moist dough.  Shape the dough into flat rounds about 3” in diameter. Bake for 30-35 minutes; they will be brown on the bottom, very lightly colored and, depending on the cornmeal you use, may crack on top. Serve warm or cold (they will store relatively well), plain, with butter, sprinkled with sugar, or yes, with maple syrup.



Megan K said...

What a great idea! And so lovely that you have so many of your local corn meals still available. The "best" cornmeal in the South is sadly no longer with us. It was Three Rivers. It came in a black bag and lived on the highest shelf in our kitchen when I was growing up. My father makes a lot of cornbread and hoe cakes and things like that, and none of them have been the same since. I wonder what he'd think of the RI varietals. Maybe we'll do our own comparison!

Anonymous said...

From a Little Compton reader, glad to see that your are posting regularly again.

Your cornmeal test is very useful. Is there a place to buy the Carpenter's cornmeal in the Little Compton/East Bay area?

Jane said...

Megan, makes me sad that Three Rivers is only a memory, although a memory involving a black bag high on a shelf is a wonderful one. Hoe cakes are close to our thick jonnycakes, I think. You can order Gray's and Kenyon's on the web; Carpenter's, I think you'd have to email or call to ask if they would ship. Links are provided in the post.

Jane said...

Anonymous: Thank you for being so patient, and for reading. Hope to keep it up, it gets difficult during the academic year, but I do try here in LC. Carpenter's does not distribute, unfortunately. You need to visit the mill, or call or email and ask. I've updated the post with a link to their contact info.