One of my family’s favorite historic sites on the island of Nantucket is the Old Mill. Operated by the Nantucket Historical Association, the Old Mill is the oldest, continuously operated windmill in the country. Built in 1746, it is actually 30 years older than the country it is in! The NHA offers tours of the Mill every half hour during the summer season. One afternoon, my mom and I brought the kids over for a tour. We had an amazing guide, Shaun, who showed us all around the mill and explained how it worked, from the blades outside to the gears and the grindstones inside. Shaun was full of interesting facts, like how the wood for the mill came from wrecked ships. All four of us thoroughly enjoyed the tour and always checked to see if the Mill had its sails up on the way to JR’s camp in the morning.
One afternoon, we were driving home from picking JR up at camp when we noticed that all four sails were up on the windmill blades and, in fact, it was turning. That could only mean one thing: the mill was actually grinding corn! My mother immediately pulled over and we tumbled out of the car and ran into the Mill to see if we could watch the corn being ground. Well, we were very lucky because the Mill only actually grinds corn a few times a year. And we happened to be there on one of those days. We marveled at how quickly the blades turned — pushed only by the wind — the noise of the two stones grinding together and the smell of the freshly-ground corn. Watching the corn being ground at the Old Mill in the same way it was done 250 years ago was one of the absolute highlights of the trip.
The Old Mill actually sells two-pound bags of its cornmeal but the label states clearly that the cornmeal is a souvenir only. It is not intended for consumption. I get that. It’s not like the FDA is inspecting the cleanliness of the old grindstones. Nevertheless, once we saw the corn being ground, my kids absolutely insisted that we buy some of the cornmeal. At $4 for 2 lbs., I was more than happy to oblige. And, if you thought that I wasn’t going to bake with the Old Mill cornmeal regardless of what any label says, you have not been paying attention.
On my second night home, I whipped up a batch of Southern-style cornbread — meaning no flour, just cornmeal — with the stone-ground cornmeal from the Old Mill. We all declared it the best cornbread we had even eaten. It was crumbly but not dry at all and the corn flavor shone through. It was best right out of the oven, but the leftovers have tasted pretty good warmed up for breakfast. I like to eat my cornbread with butter and honey. My kids eat it plain. But if you felt like it, you could go really old-fashioned and eat it with sorghum syrup.
If you can’t get cornmeal from the Old Mill on Nantucket, it is still worth seeking out stone-ground cornmeal. You can really taste the difference. A friend who lives in South Carolina recommends Palmetto Farms as a source for traditional stone-ground cornmeal and grits. (Did you know that grits are what is left over after the corn is ground and sifted? The grits are the coarser pieces that don’t make it through the sifter. In Nantucket, they just re-grind those coarse bits, but in the South, they were turned into grits.) Once you get your hands on some stone-ground cornmeal, try this cornbread recipe. It will convince you.
From The Joy of Cooking
1 TB animal fat, lard or vegetable shortening*
1 3/4 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1 TB sugar
1 tsp. each baking powder and baking soda
1 tsp alt
2 large eggs
2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients until combined. In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Whisk in the buttermilk. Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients all at once and stir with a fork just until blended. Add whatever fat you are using (lard, shortening, etc.) to a 9-inch cast iron skillet or a square baking pan and place the skillet or pan in the oven. When the fat has melted, swirl it around to coat the pan. Then add the batter all at once. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the cornbread has pulled away from the sides of the pan and center feels firm to the touch. Serve hot.
*The recipe calls for bacon fat but since we don’t have pork in our house, I used some duck fat I had in my fridge and it was delicious. Crisco would work too.