Most people are probably aware that there is such a thing as blue corn, if only because they have noticed blue corn tortilla chips for sale. However, I recently came across another unusual and rare type of sweet dent corn (in the form of meal) called "Bloody Butcher". Let me warn you: don't expect to run out to the grocery store and find this right away. Don't even expect to find it at a health food store or in either Bob's Red Mills or Arrowhead Mills lineup of products.
Locating some of this rare and flavorful heritage grain will likely involve searching farm markets in Appalachia. Although other than for food it is more often grown for harvest or fall decorations and is sometimes known as "Indian Corn". Bloody Butcher corn even has a legend behind it.
During the 1800's a woman, Betsy Gibson, and her dog, Wolf, were captured by Indians and taken to Ohio. She was able to escape after a year by swimming across the Ohio River back to West Virginia, bringing with her a sack of red native seed corn. She planted the red corn with her family's white corn crop and a hybrid developed: white corn with red specks resembling spattered blood on a white butcher's apron. Due to the crop's maturing in 90 days it is ideally suited to the mountain climate of West Virginia with its early frosts and resulting shorter growing season.
And so Bloody Butcher became a staple in the diet of West Virginia and all of Appalachia.
Unfortunately, with the mechanization of farming, Bloody Butcher corn fell out of favor because it cannot be harvested by machine. It can only be harvested by hand, therefore it is very labor intensive and the cost to purchase it has turned it from a staple to a luxury food! The existing farmers of Bloody Butcher have mainly sold their crop as feed corn. There is some hope that with the current surging interest in heirloom crops of all varieties and organic farming that gradually more farmers will take an interest in raising blood butcher corn and bringing it to market for more of us to enjoy.
Corn can be a challenging crop to grow as it may all too easily cross-pollinate with other nearby crops and produce undesirable results. But careful small gardeners can start with just a few rows and be successful. The stalks are characteristically taller than typical corn and yield only one or two ears. Maybe that's why it is primarily used for decorative purposes: it is too pretty and too labor intensive a crop to just eat up! The ears contain a wide variety of shades including reds, purples, yellows, and blues, but are primarily known as being a deep red to maroon or purple color. The stalks rise to fifteen feet in height and the ears may be as long as a foot! Distinctively larger than other varieties of corn, each ear may yield a half pound of seed, which would mean my one pound sack of Bloody Butcher Corn Meal is made from two ears.
If you are lucky enough to locate some Bloody Butcher cornmeal and decide to make some cornbread, expect that it will be coarsely ground and have a true chewy and slightly gritty texture as compared to a typical cornbread mix. It is wonderfully substantial and nutty. The one pound bag I purchased contains only enough for about two batches of cornbread, so I've been reluctant to finish it off before I can find some more of it. This gritty West Virginia crop is even finding its way into gourmet restaurants in the form of polenta. Tim Urbanic, chef at Cafe Cimino Country Inn, serves polenta for breakfast made from Bloody Butcher cornmeal, grown in West Virginia. He learned the art of making polenta from his mother, an Italian immigrant from Calabria.
These wonderful old crops have been preserved by generations of seed savers, many of whom are found throughout Appalachia. Despite their persistence, every variety is only one generation away from extinction if the mantle is not passed down to the next generation and the process pursued with diligence. Although one of the poorest and most disadvantaged areas of the US, Appalachia possesses great wealth in seed varieties and plays an important role in preserving our heritage food crops for posterity.
Bill Savage grows Bloody Butcher corn on his farm in Virginia. A Civil War re-enactor himself, he has chosen to re-enact the farming of heritage grains as well with the vintage farm equipment he has collected. In 2007 he purchased a bag of corn from a neighbor who said that his grandfather had been growing it since 1870. Although he thought the ears he produced would be great to sell for decorations, he couldn't make enough money from that and decided to grind the corn into meal and try making cornbread. Now, after he finishes work at his primary job, he spends the rest of his day planting and harvesting Bloody Butcher corn with the goal of reviving his family farm.
Springtime finds Savage planting and cultivating eight acres of Bloody Butcher corn riding on his 1949 International Harvester tractor. In the fall he harvests and dries the kernels in a vintage corn crib and uses an antique 1888 Blackhawk Corn Sheller to remove the kernels, separating the best to be used for the next year's crop. In January he grinds the kernels in his 1935 Meadows Mills mill to make the process complete.
Savage actually had his corn evaluated by a University of North Carolina agricultural professor who determined that the corn was linked to what was grown in southeastern Virginia in 1840.
As time goes on more people are discovering the value of reviving the old ways: heirloom seeds and crops, vintage tools, traditional approaches to food preparation. In an era when so much of life is easier because of the machines we own, maybe we should find more time to revive the food of the past. Many believe that those older heirloom varieties are safer and healthier for us to consume. And there is also the simple but deep satisfaction of being part of a cycle of life and sustenance.