Haudenosaunee Cornbread Making: 15th Century vs. Today

Part of Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians.

3 photos showing dried corn, model of cornbread making, and woman in kitchen making cornbread Dried Haudenosaunee White Corn, photo by Tahila Mintz (Yaqui) / © AMNH; model of woman in a longhouse mixing cornbread, © AMNH / D. Finnin; Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) mixing cornbread in 2019, photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
 
Explore the making of cornbread in a step-by-step comparison of images from the Museum's Hall of Eastern Woodland Indians to the work of Mohawk photographer Laticia McNaughton.

These two miniature dioramas illustrate the steps of harvesting, processing, and preparing Haudenosaunee White Corn in the 15th century, prior to contact with Europeans.

Click on the numbers to explore each step.

Processing Haudenosaunee White Corn into Flour

Model showing the various stages of corn processing. 9 figurines of women are shown husking, drying, cooking and pounding corn into flour.

Step 2: Husking, Braiding, and Drying

Model of woman husking corn. Model of woman husking corn
© AMNH / D. Finnin
close-up of husking the corn Husking the corn to prepare for braiding at the Tuscarora Reservation, 2014
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

The corn grown by Haudenosaunee farmers in the summer is usually harvested from the fields in the fall after the corn is mostly dried. It will need another few months to be fully dry and ready for processing. When corn is prepared for braiding, corn is husked. “Husking the corn” means peeling back the husk from the corn cob, but not removing it. Men, women, and children work together at community work parties, known as husking bees, to braid the husk with the corn attached. They form the corn into long braids that hang from barns or other structures that can keep them dry for the rest of the year. For hundreds of years up until the 18th century, these corn braids would have hung from longhouses for storage. But today they usually fill barns or garages. The technique for braiding the corn has changed little over time.

close-up of braiding corn Braiding corn, 2014
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
group gathered together around corn A group gathers at the Tuscarora Reservation to braid dried corn for winter storage, 2014
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
corn braids hanging from ceiling in a barn
Braids of Haudenosaunee White Corn hanging in a barn, 2018
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

In its dried state, corn can last all year long, providing nourishing meals through the winter months. It cannot be eaten dried, though, without being cooked for a long time or processed to allow it to be cooked more quickly.

Step 6: Cleaning the Corn

Model of woman washing the corn. Model of woman washing the corn
© AMNH / D. Finnin
washing the corn in the corn washing basket in a kitchen sink Washing the corn, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

After the corn cooks for 45 minutes, the ashes must be rinsed away. Up until the 19th century—and even later in some Haudenosaunee communities—corn rinsing was done in a stream or trough, as shown in the mini diorama, but today it is most often done in a kitchen sink. In both time periods it was and is necessary to rinse the corn extensively until all the ash is removed. The corn-washing basket has a rough interior surface that helps to loosen the hulls when the corn gets rubbed against the weave of the basket.

Corn-washing baskets have changed little over the years. They remain the best tool for this specialized job. Compare the corn-washing basket in the hall to the contemporary basket made by Penny Minner (Seneca). Both are made of wood from black ash trees.

Corn washing basket on display in the hall. Corn-washing basket on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Contemporary corn washing basket Contemporary corn-washing basket made by Penny Minner (Seneca), 2018
© AMNH/M. Shanley

Step 3: Shelling the Corn

Model of woman shelling corn in the 15th century. Model of woman shelling corn in the 15th century
© AMNH / D. Finnin
closeup of shelling corn over a bowl Shelling corn, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

After the Haudenosaunee White Corn is dried, the kernels must first be shelled from the cobs. The mini diorama shows a woman from the 15th century using a deer jaw to strip the kernels from the cob. This tool would typically have been used to scrape off kernels while they were still milky, but it can also help loosen dried kernels.

Today, shelling is still usually done by hand, by twisting and pushing the kernels until they loosen and fall from the cobs. There are also machines that can shell corn for large-scale processing. After the corn is shelled, there are still loose bits of cob and corn silk with the kernels. So the corn must be winnowed, or poured from one container to another while wind from a fan or breeze blows away these loose bits, which are known as chaff.

Step 4: Adding the Ashes to Boiling Water

collecting ashes from a fireplace. Collecting ashes from a fireplace, 2019
Photo by Marissa Manitowabi (Seneca) / © AMNH
sifting ashes Sifting ashes in Buffalo, New York, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Ashes from burned hardwood logs are gathered and sifted to remove large chunks. The wood ash is naturally alkaline, like lye. When it is boiled with corn, it will eat through the outer hull of the corn, shortening the cooking time by more than half and increasing the corn's nutritional value.

The mini diorama shows a woman adding ashes to a clay pot of boiling water over an open fire. This is how Haudenosaunee people “lyed” or “cleaned” corn prior to contact with Europeans. Today, Haudenosaunee cooks typically add water from the tap and ashes to a pot on a stove.

Model of woman adding ashes to a pot. Model of woman adding ashes to a pot
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Adding ashes to a pot Adding ashes to a pot, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
clay pot
Clay pot on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin

Step 5: Adding the Corn Kernels to the Boiling Water and Ashes

Model of woman pouring corn into a pot over a fire Model of woman pouring corn into a pot
© AMNH / D. Finnin
pouring corn into a pot on a kitchen stovetop Pouring corn into a pot, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Haudenosaunee White Corn is added to a pot of boiling water with the ashes in a similar manner for both time periods depicted. Again, though, the people processing the corn are using different pots and heat sources.

close up of partially-cooked corn on a wooden spoon
Partially-cooked corn, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

After about 15 minutes, when the ashes are beginning their work of breaking down the hulls (outer shells), the kernels turn a bright orange color temporarily, before returning to an off-white shade. This color change signals that the chemistry is working and that the outer hull is beginning to break down, which will make the corn cook in half the time. The corn contains niacin and amino acids, which are essential nutrients. Cooking in the wood ash changes these nutrients so that our bodies can use them more easily. This makes it possible for people to live on a diet of corn, beans, and squash.

Step 7: Drying the Corn

hand holding some cooked kernels of corn
Corn after it has been cooked with ashes, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

After the corn has been washed, scrubbed against the basket, and picked over, its hulls (outer shells) are released. At this point, the corn is known as lyed, hulled, or cleaned corn.

Model of corn drying in a basket. Model of corn drying in a basket
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Corn drying on a window screen Corn drying on a window screen, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Cooking it further at this point would create hominy, but in order to make corn flour for cornbread, the next step is to spread out the hulled corn someplace where it can dry well. The mini diorama shows the corn spread out in a shallow basket in the sun, like the one on display in the hall. Today, in the summer, some people continue to dry it this way. Others use dehydrators to speed the process along. In the photo, museum educator Marissa Manitowabi (Seneca) is spreading it on a window screen and running a fan nearby. Once the corn is dry, it can be ground to make flour.

large rectangular shallow basket
Drying basket on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin

Step 8: Making Corn Flour

Models of women pounding the corn and sifting the flour. Models of women pounding the corn and sifting the flour
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Woman grinding the flour in a kitchen Laticia grinding the flour, 2019
Photo by Marissa Manitowabi (Seneca) / © AMNH

In the 15th century, Haudenosaunee people pounded and sifted the dried, hulled corn to make flour with a consistent texture. The mini diorama shows women pounding the corn in a corn pounder (a large mortar and pestle) and then sifting the flour. Large chunks that are sifted out could be pounded again until the desired consistency was achieved. 

Today, Haudenosaunee cooks have several options. This process can still be done with a corn pounder, but as Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) shows, a hand grinder can be used, as well as a blender or coffee mill. Laticia is a Ph.D. candidate in Indigenous Studies, specializing in food sovereignty.

wooden corn pounder in the hall Corn pounder on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin
shallow sifter basket Sifter on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin

Step 1: Harvesting the Corn

Model of woman carrying corn from the field. Model of woman carrying corn from the field
© AMNH / D. Finnin
person harvesting corn with basket on back Yotakahron Jonathan harvesting corn with a basket she made, Six Nations Farmers’ field, 2018
Photo by Yotakahron Jonathan (Mohawk)

Unlike wild plants, corn will not grow without human hands to place it into the soil. And its seeds can only last a few years before they are less likely to sprout new plants. So today, when Haudenosaunee men and women grow corn, the seeds exist because of the previous generations who grew corn and saved the seeds year after year. This connects Haudenosaunee people all the way back to their creation story, when the first food plants emerged from etíno’ëh yöëdzada:je’ (Seneca for Mother Earth).

Corn can be harvested at different times, depending on the dish that is going to be made. To create the flour that makes cornbread, growers wait until the fall to pick the corn, when it has already mostly dried on the stalk, as in the harvest image below.

Burden basket on display in the hall Burden basket on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin
field of Haudenosaunee White Corn Haudenosaunee White Corn at harvest time, 2017
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Burden baskets, such as this one displayed in the hall, help the person picking corn at harvest time. The baskets distribute the weight across the harvester’s shoulders or forehead with a tumpline strap, like the one the woman in the mini diorama is wearing. Today, burden baskets, like the one medical student Yotakahron Jonathan (Mohawk) is wearing, are still used. But wheelbarrows, four wheelers, or tractors with attachments are just as likely to be used.

Making Corn Flour into Cornbread

Closeup of Longhouse diorama with exterior wall removed to show inside, where several women figurines are hunched over bowls, preparing corn cakes.

Step 9: Mix the Corn Flour With Hot Water and Add Beans or Other Additions

Model of woman kneeling in front of wooden bowl mixing corn flour and water Model of woman mixing corn flour and water
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Wooden bowl on display in the hall Wooden bowl on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin

To make this Haudenosaunee style of boiled cornbread, the corn flour must first be mixed with hot water. The mini diorama shows a woman in a 15th century longhouse using a wooden bowl and spoon, with water from a clay pot that would have been transported from a spring or freshwater stream and then boiled over an open fire.

Today, Haudenosaunee cornbread makers still pour boiling water into ground corn flour, but the tools as well as the sources of the water and heat are often different. In these images, cornbread maker Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) uses a glass bowl and a metal spoon. Modern cooking tools vary from home to home.

Closeup up bowl on a countertop. The bowl is being handled by a woman, who is mixing together its contents of corn flour and water with a spoon. Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) mixing cornflour and water, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
Closeup of woman dropping beans into glass bowl containing corn dough mixture. She is holding a spoon over the bowl with her other hand. Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) adding beans, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

The natural starches in the corn that were released when it was cooked in wood ash make it stick together so that she can start to form the moistened corn into round loaves. An experienced bread maker can do this by eye, without measuring the water or flour. When the dough is a good consistency, Belinda adds cooked beans or other additions like nuts and berries.

Step 10: Form the Dough into Loaves

Model of a woman forming corn loaves with her hands. Model of a woman forming the loaves
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Closeup of woman's hands, forming moist corn dough into patties. Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) forming the loaves, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Haudenosaunee cooks compact the dough into round "wheels" and smooth them by hand. The woman in the mini longhouse model is shown doing this the same way that Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) does in her kitchen today.

Step 11: Boil the loaves

Model of woman bent over a stone griddle. She is using a paddle to handle the corn loaves. Model of a woman boiling the loaves
© AMNH / D. Finnin
Wooden corn paddle mounted inside a glass case in the Hall of Eastern Woodland Indians. Corn paddle on display in the hall
© AMNH / D. Finnin

The loaves are simmered in boiling water for about 45 minutes. The mini diorama depicts a woman from the 15th century using a wooden paddle to lower the loaves into water boiling in a clay pot over a fire.

Woman wearing apron in her home kitchen. She is using a long, thin, wooden paddle to lower corn cakes in a pot of boiling water on her stovetop. Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) boiling the loaves, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH
Simple corn paddle with small geometric design etched into flat area just below the long neck. Contemporary corn paddle made by Adrian John, 2018 (Seneca)
© AMNH / M. Shanley

Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) uses a similar wooden paddle to lower her loaves into water boiling in a metal pot on her stove. When the cornbread floats to the top, she will know it is done.

Belinda removes the loaves from the pot with her corn paddle, then slices up the steaming cornbread for serving. This bread can be served with butter and maple syrup or made savory by serving it with meat and gravy.

Closeup of plate with hot cornbread on it. A hand rests on the plate's side. The other hand holds a knife, slicing into the loaf to release steam.
Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) cutting corn bread, 2019
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

While it takes years of experience, access to this unique corn, and a couple days of work to make the cornbread this way, people can get a sense of the flavor by making a baked bread from this ground corn flour. Seneca scholar and Haudenosaunee White Corn advocate John Mohawk developed a more accessible recipe with the flour that can be found on this page along with many other recipes.

Haudenosaunee White Corn is a type of corn that has been grown for hundreds of years by Native people from the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and which they continue to grow today. Some original names for the corn are still used within their respective communities. For example, it is known as onëögë:n in Seneca and onnenhstakén:ra in Mohawk. Haudenosaunee White Corn has also been known for several decades as Iroquois White Corn. As people shift away from using the word Iroquois towards Haudenosaunee, the name that the people from this confederacy call themselves, it seemed fitting to also update what we call the corn that bears their name.

There is debate about whether a similar corn, Tuscarora White Corn, is a more robust version of Haudenosaunee White Corn or an altogether different variety. Tuscarora farmers brought these seeds from their Carolina homelands and have kept this corn flourishing in their current territory through at least 12 generations. Today there is a resurgence across the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in growing traditional varieties of corn in both large-scale food sovereignty initiatives and personal home gardens.

Haudenosaunee White Corn is known as a flour corn. Each kernel is filled with a powdery corn flour that is protected by a hard outer shell. Through a variety of processing techniques, from cooking in wood ash to pounding or grinding the kernels, this corn variety can be turned into a myriad of dishes, from corn soup to corn porridge. In a process known as nixtamlization, wood ash’s natural alkalinity breaks down the outer hull of the corn when boiled with water, greatly reducing the corn’s cooking time and improving its nutritional value.

crushed corn in someone's hand Crushed Haudenosaunee White Corn kernels
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

Instead of rotting when left out, Haudenosaunee White Corn naturally dries at the end of the growing season. Traditionally, until the 18th century, Haudenosaunee White Corn was braided and hung from the rafters of a longhouse. Today, it is hung in a barn or garage. This variety of corn can last up to a decade if stored properly. It has sustained Haudenosaunee communities for thousands of years and remains a central part of the culture today.

group of people braiding corn and corn braids hanging from the ceiling
A group gathers at the Tuscarora Reservation to braid dried corn for winter storage; corn braided and hung to dry
Photos by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH

This is a Haudenosaunee style of cornbread, also known in some communities as a corn wheel. This bread bears little resemblance to the baked cornbread non-Native people may be familiar with. It is a round, boiled bread that is dense and moist, and which emits a distinct white-corn smell. There is no wheat flour or leavener used in this recipe, only corn, water, and beans as ingredients, plus the wood ash that is used for processing the corn. This cornbread is considered a delicacy because of the many hours of preparation needed to create it.

cutting into piece of Hadenosaunee corn bread Haudenosaunee corn bread
Photo by Laticia McNaughton (Mohawk) / © AMNH