The first time I visited the Ellis residence was late in the summer of 2005. I was attending Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, at the time, and a group of five or six of us decided it would be fun to get out of dodge and experience country life for a few days. We packed our bags, hit the road in a friend’s minivan, and five hours later arrived at a 50-acre hobby farm in south central Ohio.
My memories of that weekend have faded a bit, which I’ll conveniently blame on mommy brain, but there were two experiences I’ll never forget. (Well, three if you count me being giddy about being on a trip with the oh-so-charming-and-handsome Dan Ellis; we weren’t officially dating yet, though romance was definitely brewing.) Our time was spent extracting honey straight from comb and tying together stalks of dry corn for an elderly farmer so he could sell them as autumn decoration. Some of the work was backbreaking (like those blasted corn bundles), but most of it was enjoyable. And as the only girl on the trip, I was proud that I could hold my own laboring out in the field with the guys.
Fast forward 7 years, and here we are on the farm again. Things have surely changed; all the kids have flown the coop, the beehives have been removed, and just a few animals remain. The quiet is calming, and unique opportunities present themselves for those who are willing to see them. Last week, a stretch of beautiful weather prompted the farmers of nearby fields to reap their crops. Dust was flying around the combine as soybeans met their harvest, and Dan and Eowyn went on a tractor ride through the adjacent corn field.
I felt like a modern-day Ruth as Dan and I walked into the empty corn field that same night, flashlights in hand, gleaning the ears of corn that the harvester left behind. We intended only to fill a large paper sack, but the corn was so abundant that we ended up with a wheel barrow-full before all was said and done. This corn was different than the sweet summer corn I am accustomed to seeing. The husks had faded to brown, their paper veils covering dry, hard kernels. Once it’s dry like this, the grain is good for animal feed, Dan’s dad mentioned; oh yes, and cornmeal.
We waited for a day that everyone was available to participate, then we set to work turning this formerly-cast-aside corn into something edible and delicious.
First, we removed the husks and silk from the ears of corn.
Next, the ears were fed, one by one, through a hand-crank John Deere sheller.
The machine removed the kernels and deposited them into a bucket that sat underneath.
The naked cobs were supposed to come out the front of the sheller and into a designated bucket below, but these ones were a bit unruly and ended up all over the ground. Nothing a little picking up couldn’t fix.
Any remaining kernels were stripped from the cobs by hand, and then it was time to clean the corn. Thankfully, strong winds made winnowing easy. We picked up handfuls of corn and gently let it fall between our fingers back into the bucket, allowing the wind to carry the chaff away.
The final step in the process was grinding. It took a bit of trial and error to determine the best course of action, but in the end, we ran the corn through twice in order to achieve the grind we desired. The first passed crushed the corn coarsely, and the second pass made it finer. In the end it was a four-person job: one person to load the corn in the top, one to crank the handle, another to hold the bucket, and of course, someone had to take pictures.
Our finished product was a beautiful cornmeal flecked with white and yellow, yet it wasn’t homogeneous like the factory-processed meal that I usually buy in the store. While there were larger pieces and those that were more like dust, when combined, the texture was perfect.