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Sensory Perspectives on Maize and Identity Formation in Colonial New England


A sensory perspective in archaeology provides insight into a range of past cultural practices, including foodways. An ongoing examination of the role of maize, a New World domesticate, in the diet of 17th-century New Englanders highlights the importance of a sensory approach to understanding colonial encounters with cultural “Other.” By foregrounding sensory experience to consider the tastes, flavors, and textures of maize dishes, but also the physical labor of growing and preparing maize for consumption, this study demonstrates that maize, though a novel foodstuff, was for many colonists good to grow and eat. For others, this cereal was laborious to produce and, even if sustaining, neither good to eat nor, as Levi-Strauss (1983) said, good to think. By considering the physical and sensorial implications of growing, processing, preparing, and consuming maize, archaeologists may gain insight into a broader transformation in cultural understandings and perceptions about the New World. The incorporation of maize into colonial households suggests that daily encounters with this food were integral to the formation and negotiation of identity in colonial society.


Una perspectiva sensorial en la arqueología proporciona información sobre una variedad de prácticas culturales pasadas, incluidas las formas de alimentación. Un examen en curso sobre el papel del maíz, un producto domesticado del Nuevo Mundo, en la dieta de los habitantes de la Nueva Inglaterra del siglo XVII destaca la importancia de un enfoque sensorial para la comprensión de los encuentros coloniales con el “Otro” cultural. Al poner en primer plano la experiencia sensorial para considerar los gustos, sabores y texturas de los platos de maíz, pero también el trabajo físico de cultivar y preparar el maíz para el consumo, este estudio demuestra que el maíz, aunque era un alimento novedoso, era considerado algo bueno para cultivar y comer por muchos colonos. Otros pensaban que este cereal era laborioso de producir y, aunque sustentador, ni bueno para comer ni, como dijo Levi-Strauss (1983), tampoco bueno para pensar. Al considerar las implicaciones físicas y sensoriales del cultivo, procesamiento, preparación y consumo del maíz, se puede comprender mejor una transformación más amplia en los entendimientos y percepciones culturales sobre el Nuevo Mundo. La incorporación del maíz en los hogares coloniales sugiere que los encuentros diarios con este alimento fueron parte integral de la formación y negociación de la identidad en la sociedad colonial.


Une perspective sensorielle en archéologie apporte une contribution sur un ensemble de pratiques culturelles passées, notamment les pratiques alimentaires. Une étude en cours sur le rôle du maïs, une plante domestiquée du Nouveau Monde, dans le régime alimentaire des habitants du 17ème siècle dans la Nouvelle Angleterre souligne l'importance d'une approche sensorielle de la compréhension des rencontres coloniales avec l'« Autre » culturel. Plaçant au premier plan l'expérience sensorielle pour un examen des goûts, des saveurs et des textures des plats de maïs, mais également du travail physique de la culture et de la préparation du maïs pour sa consommation, cette étude démontre que le maïs, bien que s'agissant d'un aliment nouveau, était considéré par de nombreux colons comme bon à cultiver et consommer. Pour d’autres, cette céréale était laborieuse à produire, et même si elle était nourrissante, elle n'était pas bonne à manger ni comme Levi-Strauss (1983) l'a déclaré, bonne à penser. Grâce à l'analyse des conséquences physiques et sensorielles de la culture, du traitement, de la préparation et de la consommation du maïs, une transformation plus vaste des connaissances et perceptions culturelles à l'égard du Nouveau Monde peut être mieux comprise. L'intégration du maïs dans les foyers coloniaux suggère que les contacts quotidiens avec cet aliment ont fait partie intégrante de la formation et de la négociation de l'identité dans la société coloniale.

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  1. Sensory scientists have determined that what is colloquially referred to as “taste” is actually a combination of what taste buds detect (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami, and likely several other “tastes,” including fat and carbohydrates) and smell (orthonasal and retronasal) (Spence 2015). The combined sensory experience is referred to as “flavor.” In this article, I use the terms “flavor” or “taste experience” to indicate this multisensorial experience.

  2. Maize was most commonly referred to in the 17th century as “Indian corn” or “Indian,” while “corn” was a generic term for cereal grains at this time (OED: Oxford English Dictionary 2021). To avoid confusion, I use the terms “maize” or “Indian corn” in this study.

  3. “Samp” refers to coarse groats or broken grains of maize that are hulled through pounding or, alternately, a boiled mush made from samp grains. “Hominy” refers to the dried, whole grain from which the hull has been removed, or to a dish of the same. The technique of chemical removal is pre-Columbian in origin (nixtamalization), but de-hulling can also be achieved through mechanical pounding. Methods of chemical removal include soaking in water or in an alkaline solution made from shell, lye, lime, or a combination of lime and wood ash (Dezendorf 2015).

  4. Captivity narratives, written by colonists and settlers, describe their abduction and subsequent experiences as captives of Native groups. Their authors often relate the unease they felt with respect to Native foods. See, for example, the accounts of Mary Rowlandson (Demos 1991) and the Reverend John Williams (Haefeli and Sweeney 2006). Note, however, that captivity narratives are a specific literary genre containing rhetorical structures and devices. In the accounts by Rowlandson and Williams, those devices advance the theological beliefs and worldview of the Puritans (Ebersole 1995). Captivity narratives should therefore be read with this understanding in mind, and indeed they require critical evaluation (Herrmann 2015). In the case of the present study, this means a careful reading of statements about encounters with Native foods.


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The research presented in this article is part of an ongoing multidisciplinary study of maize in 17th-century New England. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Gastronomy Program for their continued encouragement and support. Thanks to Dr. Anne Yentsch for her many insights on cooking technology, food-related material culture, and changing food practices in earlier stages of this research. Silas Hurry, curator emeritus of research and collections for St. Mary’s City, Maryland, directed me to scholarship on the work of processing maize in the 17th-century Chesapeake. Dr. Lori Stokes of the Partnership of Historic Bostons drew my attention to the probable use of Indian corn and rye for the Communion host and was kind enough to share her sources. David Landon, Ross Harper, and Bill Farley discussed their ongoing work in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and generously suggested resources and contacts. Kathleen Wall is an incomparable source of information. Her tutelage in 17th-century foodways has been foundational to my research. Karl Koch, Gastronomy Program alumnus and former graduate assistant, cheerfully conducted an online search of colonial newspapers for references to maize and compiled a valuable body of data for this study. Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to my friend, mentor, and colleague, the late Dr. Mary C. Beaudry, for her guidance and support these many years.

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Metheny, K.B. Sensory Perspectives on Maize and Identity Formation in Colonial New England. Hist Arch 56, 227–243 (2022).

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