Heirloom corn harvests produce restaurants' grits, tortillas, and Pennsylvania polenta
The growth of these heritage varieties has been fueled by fresh masa makers in Philadelphia.
“Almost nobody farms this way anymore,” says Glenn Brendle, surveying the field of heirloom corn that sits dry and ready to be harvested on a rise of his Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Lancaster County.
These aren’t the high-yield GMO hybrids heavily treated with fertilizer and herbicide that account for almost all the corn Americans eat. The four varieties standing tall at Green Meadow are open-pollinated relics from the 1800s and before, meaning they’ve been seeded from the previous year’s harvest, and carefully guarded by seed savers for more than a century.
The six acres here of golden Reid’s Yellow Dent, coppery Wapsie Valley, pearly white Silver King and Floriani red flint produce just a fraction of their modern corn counterparts. But they also make fantastic cornbread, bowls of grits or corn mush (“Pennsylvania’s polenta," former Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols once called it) and, increasingly around here, tremendous tamales and tortillas.
“OK now, the day’s a wasting!” says Brendle, 74, who cuts a timeless figure against the crisp blue sky as he climbs up into the driver’s seat, a tractor-matching red shirt beneath his blue overalls, a vintage black Trilby he bought cheap at an auction (“like Sinatra’s hat!”) protecting his head from the sun. Only a surgical mask stretched across his white beard gives a clue to the pandemic swirling across the country while the old Massey Ferguson engine rumbles to life and rolls through the rows of Silver King. It clatters along in clouds of dust as the parched stalks fall and crunch beneath the mechanical picker’s pontoon-like arms, while perfectly husked ears of corn shoot out the other end into a trailing bin.
There’s a rare continuity to this autumn harvest for a family that’s been farming in Lancaster County for eight generations since the mid-1700s. Brendle recalls sitting atop his father Martin’s corn wagon as a 12-year-old, keeping an eye out for the occasional red ear amid the mostly golden rows of Lancaster Sure Crop corn that was once a staple variety in this county, used for the pan-crisped loaves of cornmeal mush paired with pork pudding — a sort of deconstructed scrapple that remains a popular breakfast in Amish country.
“I just told my wife, Kay, yesterday I think it’s time to make a pan of mush,” he says, “It’s getting chilly.”
These days, though, there are multiple Brendle generations joining Glenn in the fields, where their recent push to grow these varieties of heritage corn has been fueled by a growing movement of fresh masa makers in Philadelphia.
Brendle’s 4-year-old sparkplug of a granddaughter, Goldie, bounds through the nearby rows of Umpqua broccoli and Japanese turnips with her mom, Melanie Martin, since this field is their pandemic playground. Meanwhile, Glenn’s son Ian (Goldie’s dad) strides beside the tractor with mechanic Nick Vennell continuously wrangling corn through the picker.
“It’s still a little green,” says Glenn, explaining the frequent tractor pauses to unclog the old machinery.
Ian, 38, his father’s partner now, is the friendly bearded face of the farm on weekly drop-offs in Philadelphia, where his deep agricultural savvy and easy millennial charm have helped make Green Meadow’s bounty a gold-standard for produce on restaurant menus — and now CSA boxes sold to the public that helped the farm survive when its wholesale business nearly shut down due to the coronavirus in March.
The Brendles grow over 50 different kinds of crops, as well as chickens and a handful of steer, on their 42 acres near the eastern edge of Lancaster County, with chef-coveted rarities like fresh borlotti beans, cardoons, foraged ramps and American persimmons. It was in one of those CSA boxes that I got my first eye-opening taste of the Brendles' corn, which comes in a variety of shades and different grinds, but is especially great when toasted nutty brown in the Lancaster style (unlike traditionally paler Southern grits) that lend our corn muffins a magnetically earthy depth.
“I love the flavor of the Floriani,” says baker Alex Bois of the red flint corn popularized in Northern Italy now also grown by Green Meadow (as well as some other small Pennsylvania farms) that his Lost Bread Co. bakes into a hominy porridge bread called Homadama. “It’s so aromatic and oily when you cook with it, it smells like you’re making popcorn, like it’s the most corny corn that you can think of.”
It was Ian’s relationship with South Philly Barbacoa owners Cristina Martínez and Benjamin Miller, however, that really jumpstarted the farm’s enthusiastic embrace of dent corn six years ago as Barbacoa began to experiment with varieties that could be used to make tortillas from the masa of freshly nixtamalized kernels at their renowned taqueria on South Ninth Street.
“Local corn holds up the best, and we just find it to be superior to what you can buy in the store,” says Miller.
Barbacoa buys corn from other farms, as well, as its production continues to increase from the 1,000 pounds of masa it already produces each week for its three restaurants. Their recently created Masa Cooperativa is a new business that Miller says will likely become a separate brick-and-mortar operation with the goal of selling more fresh local corn masa wholesale. “Our objective is the supplant the poor tortillas that proliferate around here with good masa and provide good jobs.”
As a result, about 60% of Green Meadow’s annual 7-ton corn harvest is now destined for masa production, bolstered also by Cadence in South Kensington, which has been making fresh masa for its duck confit taco kits and also supplies masa for Proyecto Tamal, a weekly tamale sale fundraiser for the Latino community. (Proyecto Tamal also sells Cadence’s fresh masa on its website.)
“We’ve stuck with the Reid’s and Hickory King,” says Jon Nodler of Cadence, noting the taller Virginia hominy cousin of Silver King that Green Meadow grew last year. “The Reid’s is softer and more elastic, while the Hickory is drier and more toasty. So we use an equal blend for the tortillas. More of the Hickory for tamales, because they should be fluffier.”
Another small local wholesale masa producer, Gold Rings, has also been making fresh nixtamal from Bucks County-grown yellow corn through Doylestown’s Castle Valley Mill, which sells four heirloom varieties, and has been one of the pioneers boosting the local grain and corn movement. Castle Valley’s Bloody Butcher corn has been especially popular with chefs like Randy Rucker, who turns it into red-flecked grits doused with shio-koji butter at River Twice, but also distillers like New Liberty that have shown this flavorful grain also makes an exceptional bourbon.
The rising popularity of these one-forgotten crops can be beneficial for preserving farmland from encroaching housing development.
“Bucks County is riddled with Toll Brothers homes and farmland is disappearing,” says Castle Valley’s co-owner Fran Fischer. “But we’re able to approach small farmers...and give them a high-value crop to grow on small plots so they can make a living.”
When there’s a culinary market for such varieties, which can sell for considerably more than commodity corn used for livestock feed, “it’s a dandy crop,” says Brendle, who praises the easy storage and care of dried corn as a welcome balance to the more perishable seasonal produce his farm is known for. “When I grow my other vegetable crops, there’s an intense amount of hand weeding and hand picking.”
Of course, his yield of 100 open-pollinated bushels per acre is about a third of what common GMO varieties will produce. But when Brendle factors in his savings on annual seed purchases, chemical fertilizers (he buys chicken manure from a neighbor instead) and herbicides that contribute to the loss of soil vitality, it’s a tradeoff he’s happy to make.
“Everything’s a compromise in farming. [Production] never comes completely free,” he says. “Plus, who wants to eat something that has Roundup in it?”
Green Meadow’s status as a small farm also has another benefit: Brendle can store his corn on the ear and air dry it in the crib rather than shell and machine-dry the kernels in the field, which is common with larger operations. That approach allows him to remove and roast his corn just before milling, which helps retain the vivid flavor throughout the year.
We could taste that freshness on the Brendles’ back porch during our visit in October, when Melanie put out an antique cast-iron pan of fresh cornbread made from the last of the 2019 crop. With a smear of salted Amish butter glazed over each tawny slice, it was like eating a vibrant earthy snapshot of Green Meadow’s field in cake form. I had more than one.
“I have 42 acres and I’d be happy to grow it all in corn...maybe," Brendle would say later, a note of artisan pride in the marvelous diversity of his farm, perhaps, hedging his heritage corn entrepreneurial dreams. “I could find other small farmers that would also grow it for me. Just because we’re one of the few that does this, doesn’t mean that it has to be that way.”