We breezed through the local gas station, looking for a quick drink and a snack. I quickly spied a childhood favorite, CornNuts. I laughed and picked up the bag. CornNuts. Were they corn? Were they nuts? How were they made, where did they come from and what was their history?
A little digging brought me to the history of CornNuts. Albert Holloway of California “invented” a roasted corn snack called “Olin Brown Toasted Corn” which was similar to a popular snack or food in the United States of the time called parched corn. Holloway fried the corn, while parched corn tended to be dry roasted, labeled it and packaged it to make it available as a stabilized, commercial food for bars and people who wished to buy food in stores. Similar packaging, labeling, and stabilizing was going on across what was to become the food industry as people moved to cities and stopped producing and preparing their own food.
Holloway grew his corn in Texas before he found an article in a local paper about corn kernels as large as quarters that grew in Peru, what we now call the Giant White corn of Cusco. Intrigued, he began importing corn from Cusco to make his “Corn Nuts” because they had a nutty flavor and they were large and distinctive.
Parched corn was not something that was only found in the United States because of its indigenous traditions. It was also common to most of the Americas since corn has been a common staple for millennia. In Peru, you can make your own parched corn, canchitas as they are called, or you can buy it on the street and even now in packages with labels. Particular varieties of corn are used for the dry roasting or roasting in a slight amount of oil. Intriguingly, the giant white corn does not tend to be one of them.
A good corn for canchas becomes gentle and floury when toasted while the giant corn remains hard. As a result, Holloway would soak the corn, reconstituting it, as if he were making hominy, what is called mote in Peru, although without slaking it with lime. He then would deep fry the soaked, enlarged corn and it would become crunchy, collapsing in a burst of sound and texture, as well as taste, when bitten.
Importing the Corn from Peru was sometimes disrupted because of the start of World War II. Growing the seeds in Texas proved a failure, so he sought out professional help from plant breeder Donald Shaver. Shaver agreed to work with the project, as long as CornNuts would fund his research. It wasn’t until 1963 that Shaver “cracked” the problem and found a climate match in Salinas Valley near Monterrey California. Now, the corn from Cuzco grows in the high mountains of Salinas and is turned into CornNuts.
It didn’t seem to be much trouble to make the slightly sweet salty corn nut. I wondered if I could also make them at home.
I found a bag of “Maiz Gigante del Cuzco” in my local market. There seemed to be some equivocation about soaking/not soaking the kernels overnight or up to three days.
In the interest of time, I decided to try them without the soaking.
The kernels were fluffy inside, but remained true to the shape of the CornNut. Seasoning them with a little salt, and a bit of sugar and garlic gave them a lovely flavor. I tested them on friends and they found them acceptable enough to eat… if acceptable means they ate all that I had made.