LUMBERTON — Our colonial ancestors made whiskey from Pencil Cob corn, and they enjoyed its rich flavor in grits and corn bread.
Ancient or heirloom grains and other foods are still with us, and people such as Janice Fields are keeping traditional foods alive on her farm. She believes we should eat healthy, flavorful food and has gone to considerable effort to grow heirlooms for her family table.
By day, Fields is a consumer science specialist with the Robeson County Cooperative Extension Service. After work, she retreats to her family’s farm in east Robeson County, where she grows much of the healthy food her family eats. Her pantry is well stocked with preserved fruits, grains and vegetables, a subject she teaches in her work kitchen.
To find Fields’ house, she said to “turn at the mailbox then take a quick left between the grapevines and flower beds, and you’re there.” Once through the green tunnel, Janice can be seen waving from the deck outside her kitchen door, surrounded by herbs, flowers and butterflies.
On the deck are two devices with hand cranks, one vintage and one new. The older model is a sheller, which works like magic. The newer one is a grinder for making grits and corn meal.
“My brother made the base for the sheller,” she said. “I used it in a class and had high school kids shell ears of corn. They had a great time and stuffed their pockets full of corn.
“Working at the cooperative extension has provided a lot of inspiration,” Fields said. “Mac Johnson (horticulturalist) told me about the Bread Beckers Co-op. I order whole grains (heirloom wheat) three times a year, and we pick it up at one of the member’s home.”
The wheat grain comes in 50-pound bags, then Fields grinds it into flour in a high-tech mill. One of her favorite grains is Kamut, an ancient wheat variety, producing gallon bags from the freezer.
“The grains I buy are grown out West,” she said. “I tried local wheat, but it didn’t work.”
The whole wheat pancakes made from Kamut are “awesome,” Fields said.
The same can be said for dinosaur kale, edamame, sugarcane and other heirlooms from her garden.
Fields taught in the public schools for 25 years before joining the Cooperative Extension Service. But her agrarian roots go back several generations.
“I grew up in the house next door,” she said. “This used to be a corn field.”
Between the house where Fields grew up and the one she lives in now is a monument to old days on the farm — a tall and slightly tilting tobacco barn with weathered wood siding is slowly giving way to time.
“We had a smokehouse, and my daddy kept one or two cows and a couple of pigs,” she said. “We used to take corn to a mill to be ground.”
The yard is a profusion of flowers and vegetables. She was inspired recently by a talk given by Brie Arthur, a Wake County resident who preaches “foodscaping,” or incorporating edible plants into the landscape.
Most of Fields’ gardens are planted with traditional favorites, such as tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, grapes, peanuts, pecans, figs, eggplant, peppers and more. But she has stretched traditional offerings into heirloom plants, which have developed into a viable niche market with companies like Southern Seed Savers and Southern Exposure.
Two years ago, red flint corn caught Fields’ fancy. It makes deep yellow grits from gorgeous deep red kernels. It inspired her to try pencil cob corn, a Southern heirloom, which she bought from Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.
Anson Mills describes it this way on its website: “Settlers along the southern colonial frontier grew Pencil Cob corn, named for its very narrow cob. Anson Mills is faithful to this food form. We quern mill these grits by hand to demonstrate why this unusual corn survived into the 21st century. Pencil Cob grits say ‘corn’ in aroma and flavor more boldly than any other grits we produce. The archetypal 100 percent Southern dent corn, Pencil Cob is an old frontier and famous whiskey corn that has hung on to its popularity and reputation among farmers and bootleggers over the centuries. Grown on the frontier because it was hardy and easily harvested, Pencil Cob corn produces more kernels per ear (an 18- to 30-row count of long, meaty kernels!) than most dent corns. Easy to mill and quick to hydrate because the kernels are so soft, milled Pencil Cob cooks differently and with less heat than other dents. Pencil Cob grits express themselves in the language of sweet, roasted and creamed corn flavors.”
Fall is corn harvesting season, and Fields had a bumper crop of Pencil Cob. She will have a freezer full that will last several years.
In the cornfield, dry stalks rustle in the wind. There are five rows of 30 to 40 yards each. The harvest is completed, and fire ants have climbed the stalks, making gleaning leftovers painful.
With raised beds and in-ground plots, projects are everywhere. Fields lives and works in a food science laboratory — work and home flow together.
“It’s kind of crazy what I do,” Fields said. “It’s hard work.”
Hard work and creativity are the hallmark of Fields’ work and play. As she learns, she passes it along to Robeson County cooks and backyard farmers. Learning is lifelong for Fields, and the next season is right around the corner even in September.
“I am trying to decide what to do next year, because I have plenty of corn now,” Fields said.
After more conversation, Fields arrives on the idea of trying Carolina gold rice next year. That’s another story for another year.
Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-416-5649.