The Cherokee Nation probably acquired their popcorn through trade contacts with other Amerindians, but they selected it over time to adapt it to their climate and needs. It is different from most popcorns in that the kernels come in a rainbow of shades: red, blue, orange, white, pink, black, olive, rose, purple and yellow. The kernels are small but yield large “pops,” giving a low hull/corn ratio and great flavor.
The Cherokee found this flint corn to be very versatile, grinding it for cornmeal, picking it as sweet corn, popping it, and added the popped corn to soups and stews. This variety was bred by Carl Barnes, a world-renowned Cherokee corn collector from Oklahoma, from various strains carried west by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears.
Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears is a particularly dishonorable episode in the long history of displacement of aboriginal people to make room for European settlers. The saga began with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which provided for resettlement of the “five civilized tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole) from their homelands in the Southern states to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River. Discovery of gold in Georgia in 1829 prompted many white settlers to lay claims to Cherokee territory, and probably increased support for passage of the Removal Act.
While the Act just barely passed the Congress, it never gave the authority to forcibly remove the tribes, only the authority to pay the tribes for their land and resettlement costs. Strongly supported by President Jackson and later implemented by President Van Buren, the Act was used illegally by the individual states as an excuse to take military action against the tribes. Despite some rulings favorable to the Cherokees from the Supreme Court, Jackson, a former general and Indian fighter, encouraged and supported the individual states in their military endeavors. Jackson is reported to have said that the Supreme Court may have ruled, but they had no power to implement their decision.
The Cherokee were removed in 1838 from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. The homes and farms of the Cherokee were burned and plundered, as 15,000 men, women and children were rounded up by a military force made up of state militias, regular army, and volunteers under the command of General Winfield Scott. The Cherokee were imprisoned in concentration camps in Tennessee before beginning a 1,000-mile march as winter approached. Most of the Cherokee had to walk, many without shoes or moccasins and little winter clothing except for used blankets from a hospital in Tennessee which had experienced a smallpox epidemic. Some 4,000 Cherokee died either in the camps or on the march from disease, starvation or exposure.
Production at Nick’s Organic Farm
We raise this Cherokee variety for both popcorn and seed. We selectively hand-pick the seed corn ears in order to improve the growing characteristics, such as early dry down and standability. We also harvest some by hand to preserve the husks on the ears. We pull the husks back and tie them in bunches for beautiful fall decorative Indian corn.
In the fall, we pick the remaining popcorn with an antique corn picker, which we set to accept these slim ears. The picker removes the ear from the stalk and then removes the dry husk from the ear. We leave some ears unshelled to sell as decoratives and as microwavable popcorn on the ear.
We air dry all the ears. Then we use antique corn shellers to gently remove the kernels from the cobs. We clean the seed and the grain with small seed cleaners. However, we do not “scour” the kernels to remove the “bees wings” or light, whitish film covering on the seed coat.
Use of the Cherokee Popcorn
We sell whole ears for decoratives or for popping. We pop the whole ears by placing them in a small paper bag and putting them in the microwave for about 75 seconds. Some of the kernels pop off the ear and remain in the bag. Other kernels pop but remain on the cob. These kernels can be eaten like corn on the cob.
We also sell the loose popcorn kernels which make a wonderful rainbow of colors. They are decorative if placed in a glass bowl.
We pop the kernels with an air popper. They can also be popped in a skillet with oil. The pops are white but have a spot of their original color on the bottom. We have found that 4 oz. by volume (4 tbsp. or 1.75 oz. by weight) of unpopped Cherokee corn produces about one quart (32 oz.) by volume of fluffy popped corn.
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