A Vintage Cookbookery Mystery: Blue Corn and Culinary Ash


Music – “Taos Pueblo Round Dance Song” from Music of New Mexico: Native American Traditions by Ruben Romero, Ernest Martinez, And Juan O. Lujan. Released: 1992

Taos Pueblo Elders say that at the beginning of Time, when all of the People were gathered together preparing to walk upon Mother Earth, the Creator spoke to them and gave them four kinds of corn: blue, yellow, red, and white. The Creator told the People that they would be the caretakers of corn and taught them how to plant and harvest and how to use corn for food, medicine, and prayer.

Blue corn (Photo Credit:  www.123rf.com)

Blue corn (Photo Credit: http://www.123rf.com)

Each type of corn is associated with one of the four directions. Yellow Corn is associated with the South, the home of the grandmothers and grandfathers who bring us Spring and new life. Red Corn belongs to the West, the direction the sun travels. They say that our spirits travel westward when we cross over; the West is the place that gives us long life. To the north is White Corn and the grandmothers and grandfathers who bring us strength. Blue Corn is related to the East, the place of the rising sun, the direction that brings wisdom and understanding. When children are born, blue corn is used in their naming. As they grow, they rely upon blue corn in prayer and in healing. And when they are called home, it is the blue corn that their loved ones bury with them

(Introduction, “Blue Corn…The Beginning”, from “The Blue Corn Cookbook” by Celine-Marie Pascale)

Blue corn kernels (Photo Credit:  www.123rf.com)

Blue corn kernels (Photo Credit: http://www.123rf.com)

Native Americans in the Southwest have treasured blue corn for generations, for it’s distinctive blue colour and it’s earthy flavour. Blue corn derives its hue from anthocyanin, the same pigment found in blueberries, Concord grapes and violets. To achieve the intense lavender-blue colour of the cornmeal, it is often treated with an alkaline substance such as “culinary ash”, or baking soda. In addition to being a food, in Pueblo traditions, a paste made of blue cornmeal and water is thought to relieve aching joints.

Culinary ash” is produced from burning wood from certain trees until only ash is left. In the Southwest, the Navajos use juniper to obtain the ash, while the Hopis use green plants such as chamisa bushes.

Chamisa, often burned for culinary ash used by some Native Americans

Chamisa, often burned for culinary ash used by some Native Americans

The ashes contain a high mineral content, which increases the nutritional value of the foods they are used in. The addition of the ash to boiling water and corn also changes the corn to a more intense blue colour.

Juniper was preferred by the Navajo to burn for the ashes used in making blue corn breads, etc.

Juniper was preferred by the Navajo to burn for the ashes used in making blue corn breads, etc.

One of my Southwest cookbooks is “The Blue Corn Cookbook” by Celine-Marie Pascale, published in Albuquerque in 1990. There are numerous recipes using blue corn in breakfast dishes, appetizers, entrees and side dishes, soups, stews, casseroles, pasta and desserts. I chose to make “Taos Blue Corn Bread“. If you live in the Southwest, as I do, you can usually obtain blue cornmeal from local stores, and even some of the larger chains (like Albertson’s or Smith’s) often have a display of items from local producers. I purchased 24 ounces of blue cornmeal from Sichler Farms, in Albuquerque, which feature products from “Los Chileros de Nuevo Mexico” (www.loschileros.com) from Santa Fe, New Mexico (you can order any of their products online).

The blue cornmeal from Los Chileros de Nuevo Mexico does not contain any “culinary ash”, as it is not an essential ingredient for the average home cook. Here is the recipe:

1 ½ cups roasted blue corn, finely ground
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ cup milk (*see note below for high altitude baking)
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons bacon fat, melted (or substitute butter)
1/3 cup green chiles, chopped (fresh, frozen or canned)

*Note: at altitudes of 3,500 to 6,500 feet, increase the amount of milk by 2 tablespoons (Albuquerque is at 5,300)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8” square pan. Combine the dry ingredients. Mix the milk and egg; then add them to the dry ingredients. Stir in the melted bacon fat or butter and mix lightly. Add the chopped green chiles, mix well and pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Makes approximately one dozen servings.

In order to keep the “authenticity” of the recipe, I used melted bacon fat, which goes well with the smokiness of the roasted green chile. I had previously roasted batches of hot Hatch green chile on my barbecue, skinned and seeded them and froze them in small bags. “Hatchgreen chile is the best green chile in New Mexico and is located in the southern part of the state: green chile is the state vegetable of New Mexico (Hatch, New Mexico is officially “The Chile Capital of the World!)

Hatch green chile (Photo Credit:  www.yvonneinla.com)

Hatch green chile (Photo Credit: http://www.yvonneinla.com)

So many “imposter” chiles have intruded into the state from other states, and even from overseas that in order to protect and preserve the integrity of chile grown in New Mexico, a law was recently passed to create a Certification Mark, which guarantees that the chile you are purchasing, advertised as New Mexico, IS indeed “New Mexico Certified Chile™”.

After baking for 30 minutes, the cornbread was done and smelled heavenly: the rich, earthy smell of smoky corn and chiles, with just a hint of something sweet. The taste: delicious!

If you are serious about trying to make blue cornbread (or anything else using blue corn), in addition to Sichler Farms and Los Chileros de Nuevo Mexico, here are some other sources noted in “The Blue Corn Cookbook (note: as the book was published in 1990, these addresses may or not be current):

Blue Corn Trading Company P.O. Box 957 Taos, NM 87571

Old Southwest Trading Company P.O. Box 7545 Albuquerque, NM 87194

Casados Farms P.O. Box 1269 San Juan Pueblo, NM 87566

The Cooking Post (Bernalillo, NM) http://www.cookingpost.com

Enjoy the Taos Blue Corn BreadIf you have any blue cornmeal leftover and your joints are aching, try a paste of blue cornmeal and water and spread on the afflicted area. Let me know if it helps!

My EatYourBooks cookbook collection

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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