Cope's Essay-Stirring The Pot
The feast that we enjoy each year at Thanksgiving bears little resemblance to the seasonal fare of deer, fowl, nuts and berries shared by the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621. Yams and Pumpkin Pie were not on the menu in 17th century New England. In Lancaster County, Pa. however, many families still serve a dish made from dried sweet corn which is, if not identical to "Indian corn", close in spirit to the grain that was at the center of the first Thanksgiving celebration.
Tradition is a powerful force especially during the holidays. However we may choose to distance ourselves from the ways of our parents and grandparents, we still cling to the sense of continuity which comes from eating particular foods at particular times. In Pennsylvania Dutch communities where everyday life is steeped in respect for tradition it would be unthinkable to celebrate Thanksgiving without Cope's Dried Sweet Corn on the table.
Unlike most dried corn, Cope's is made using the same type of sweet corn that we eat off the cob during the summer. Utilizing modern drying ovens, instead of the coal burning stove first used by founder Martin Cope in 1900, Cope's captures the sweetness of just picked corn, preserving its high sugar content before it transforms into a starch. In the act of drying, the corn's sugar caramelizes producing an intensely sweet and nutty flavor. For the Pennsylvania Dutch communities in and around Lancaster County this method of preserving corn results in a superior taste.
Cooking with dried sweet corn takes more time and effort than using canned or frozen. The dried corn is reconstituted in milk or water overnight. The other solution is to use a recipe I like to refer to as Pennsylvania Dutch Risotto. The method of cooking is simplicity itself, you pour the contents of the Cope's bag (7.5oz) into a sauce pan, add milk and cook on a low flame, stirring occasionally. Just as you add liquid to Arborio rice to make risotto, you add milk over the next few hours, finishing it off with brown sugar. The resulting rich and creamy corn is divine. The rub is that you are tied to the kitchen while the corn is cooking, which during holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas is generally not a problem
In fact, perhaps the demands of cooking Cope's Corn are not so much a problem as they are a gift. We are surrounded by foods that promise convenience and yet we are constantly exhausted. What happens when we center our day on the demands of a slow cooking family meal? Instead of rushing off to complete one errand after another, we are forced to be at home where we can page thru unread magazines, look at our unprinted digital photos or perhaps have a cup of coffee and visit with one another as we occasionally stir the pot. As is so often the case, the time we spend together doing "nothing" can be the best part of the day.
More than any other holiday Thanksgiving is defined by the meal we share together. Even the most devoted fans of Cope's Corn serve it primarily on Thanksgiving, and to a lesser degree, Christmas and Easter. It is during these holidays that we submit to the rigors of cooking a large turkey and the other time consuming dishes that we expect to see on the table. Do we not cook them at other times of the year because we lack the time, or do we consciously or unconsciously save them for times when we are all gathered together as an acknowledgement of the specialness of the occasion?
Cope's is in all ways a throwback food. Preserved using methods which date back to the Native Americans and cooked in way that harkens back to when our kitchens were less trophy showcases and more the literal hearth of the family. A food to remind us that it is the journey taken together that makes the destination worthwhile.
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