The root of Fall food traditions: an ode to corn

by April Lisante
Posted 9/15/21

Fall foods are the best. Earthy, comforting, and hearty only scratches the surface of this culinary season.

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The root of Fall food traditions: an ode to corn

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Fall foods are the best. Earthy, comforting, and hearty only scratches the surface of this culinary season. Soups, stews, roasts, and nutmeg and clove-infused desserts are all on our to-eat list right about now.

To be honest, September had barely arrived when I hit Starbucks for my PSL and made plans to head to Linvilla Orchards in Media for my annual apple cider doughnut haul. I even made the trip to Trader Joe’s in search of their heavenly annual canisters of pumpkin oatmeal cookie mix.

But there’s another local fall tradition that celebrates one of the most staple autumnal foods: Corn. A delight for the senses and an immersive experience for both history buffs and those who love all things gustatory, it’s also a timely tip of the hat to the origins and sustainability of our foods, at a time when we are all a lot more conscientious about where and how we derive our meals.

This weekend, the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania offers an ode to harvested corn. On Sept. 19, the Arboretum will celebrate the historic Springfield Mill with a fun public event for food fans of all ages, called Mill Days at Bloomfield Farm. Guests can watch and interact with a tour guide as corn kernels are ground to make cornmeal in live demonstrations that take you back to the good old 19th century.

The Springfield Mill is the oldest mill of its kind from the 19th century in our area, and it is one of the reasons the Morris Arboretum is on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill has been functioning since 1854 and it is open this fall to the public, to give a firsthand look at how farmers made their crops into essential flour for bread. From 1 to 4 p.m. that day, you can take a trip through time to see how farmers brought their corn to the mill when the fall season arrived.

It’s taken a lot of love to keep the old mill running just off of Northwestern Ave. on the banks of the Wissahickon. The mill sits just a stone’s throw from the arboretum, across Northwestern Avenue in Flourtown on Bloomfield Farm, parts of which were originally built in 1761, including a stone Miller’s Cottage, one of the oldest structures at the Arboretum. Visitors get up-close with a one-thousand-pound mill that grinds corn using an electric pump. It used to be that water from the mighty Wissahickon powered the workhorse, and in the old days, Wissahickon Valley farmers would bring their crops in to the mill to have them ground into flour.

‘It is the oldest complete mill from the 19th century,” said Morris Arboretum Director of Education Bryan Thompson-Nowak. “This is where all the farmers would come. People can see where farmers would drop their crops, and how you turn plants into food. We are talking about wagon loads.”

When you witness the mill grind the corn, you can imagine what a lifeline it was for area farmers. The kernels drop, the wheels turn, and the powdered corn get sifted into a pan for the finale. It’s a great way to show children where food really comes from. They’ll also learn how Flourtown was a wheat market, and how the mill powered timber cutting and other machines critical to agricultural development.

“It’s a labor of love to keep it running. This is an amazing way to show off a piece of history,” he said. “We put a lot of work into getting it up and running.”

And yes, it is perhaps one of the most unique, local fresh-air activities to do with the family this fall to get back to basics after a tumultuous year.

“It’s a connection with all the things we lost touch with,” he said.

While the tour used to end with some fresh corn muffins guests could sample, organizers have scaled down the event because of Covid, and are not making the take-home treats at this time. The Arboretum was kind enough to share the signature recipe with readers, however.

Springfield Mill Corn Muffins

1 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1 cup stone-ground wheat flour

1 Tbsp. baking powder

½ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 cup whole milk

2 large eggs

4 Tbsp. melted butter

¼ cup Morris Gold Honey or maple syrup

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl (one with a pouring lip is best) mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the whole milk, eggs, butter and maple syrup. Add the wet to the dry ingredients and stir until just mixed.

Pour into muffin tins or a cake pan. Use muffin papers or spray the tin. Bake until golden brown on top and done in center. Cooking time and temperature may depend on pan. Small muffins can bake in less time than large muffins or sheet cake.

Recipe courtesy of the Morris Arboretum.

If you want to witness some history, Mill Days at Bloomfield Farm is happening this Sunday. If you miss it, there is another session in October as well.

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