I got a little riled up yesterday, I admit it. I get a touch of the southern preacher in me talking about corn meal, which is weird because I spent most of my life in Chicago. After reading yesterday’s post I received a few comments and emails from folks asking if I thought good corn meal was worth an investment in a small home mill. I’m not sure about that, though I know home corn milling was common in the US (and probably lots of other places) as recently as 100 years ago.
Yet I should interject that great corn meal isn’t just a product of technology, it’s a product of experience and skill. These days few of us think much about the art and science of milling, yet once upon a time almost everyone did. For the relative skill of the local mill operator made all the difference when it came to producing superior corn meal. A gristmill may look like a crude instrument, but in the hands of the right operator it can be played like a concert violin.
True, the mechanism is quite simple. Propelled by water/wind/animal power, a large round stone known as the runner is made to rotate over a second stationary stone called the bed. The faces of these stones have radiating grooves or furrows cut into them. Dried corn kernels are channeled into the center of the stones where they are ground and the resulting meal is passed outward to the edges. But a lot can go wrong in there if there if the miller doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
If the stones are too close together the result is friction. The result of friction is heat, and the result of heat is both a loss of flavor and a dense, heavy meal. If the furrows grow dull, the stones mash and roll the kernels instead of slicing them apart. If the runner turns too fast you get friction again. If it turns too slowly you don’t get a clean cutting of the kernels. If you try to put too much corn through the mill at one time you get clogging , mashing, more heat and, well…you know the rest.
For these reasons and many others that I haven’t mentioned, you want a miller who really understands his/her craft. The ultimate corn meal, so I’m told, is made from fresh, locally-obtained corn that’s been slowly air-dried (versus kiln-dried) and passed at the rate of about three bushels per hour through well-sharpened stones turning at roughly 120 revolutions per minute. Provided the operator knows what he’s doing and maintains the right distance between the runner and the bed, the result is a light, almost fluffy meal that’s cool to the touch and gives off the odor of fresh corn.
Not that I’m being particular. Me, I think it would be fun to have a home mill to fool around with. But I guess when I wanted the real deal I’d turn to the people who know what they’re doing. Know them by their straw hats, suspenders and billowy muslin shirts.