“To the far-flung tribes of the Bracketts, Johnstons, and Browns, whose indomitable grandmothers helped carve an American cuisine out of a wilderness of indigenous foods.” – Cora, Rose, and Bob Brown in America Cooks: Favorite Recipes from 48 States
Trevett Hooper’s cooking is daringly simple. At his restaurant, Legume in Pittsburgh, there are no tweezered flourishes on a plate of asparagus, farro cracker, farmer’s cheese, and green garlic pesto. A pickle plate is just that—fermented carrots, onions, and turnips; pickled green beans; and a ramekin of lush aïoli. Hooper is a Mainer, who has always been connected to the land and food. He came to the restaurant business through a career in music and settled in Pittsburgh after working in kitchens in California and Philadelphia.
Legume is Pittsburgh’s Chez Panisse, training cooks to make edited, hyper local food 12 months a year. With all the work that goes into a put-by system of sourcing, canning, fermenting, preserving, and curing “simple doesn’t have to be simplistic,” says Hooper.
One of Legume’s most most radically minimalistic dishes is Shaker dried corn that’s soaked overnight and cooked with salt, cream, and butter. Hooper found a reference to the corn in America Cooks: Favorite Recipes from 48 States by Cora, Rose, and Bob Brown, published in 1940 and again in 1949. According to one of the authors: “I honestly believe that the taste of Shaker dried corn is better than the taste of corn when it is fresh from the cob! The process parches it slightly, and this has always improved corn flavor.”
Long loved by Pennsylvania home cooks, Cope’s toasted sweet dried corn is probably the closest, most widely available descendent of shaker dried corn, but it’s an industrial product whose flavor reflects the produce process from which it’s made.
Hooper began asking around to find better-than-fresh Shaker dried corn, but no one had heard of it, let alone knew where to buy it. Hooper took his inquiry to Sam and Nettie Yoder, Amish farmers in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, who grow asparagus and other produce for Legume. The Yoders had never heard of Shaker dried corn either, but they were willing to try to make it.
After harvesting their sweet corn (a hybrid variety named “Incredible”), the Yoders place the corn in a low-tech dehydrator pan that sits atop their wood-burning stove. The corn dries for 24 hours over the gentle, radiant heat. “There’s something about the process that yields a caramel-y, chewy texture, and it preserves really well,” says Hooper, who secures anywhere from 30 to 120 pounds of the dried corn each year, depending on how much free time the Yoders have during harvest season.
The creamed corn Hooper makes smells like a pan of golden, buttery cornbread, and the kernels stick to your teeth like chewy nuggets of corn candy. It’s hard-won, labor intensive flavor that was trapped in the pages of an obscure cookbook until Hooper tracked it down and the Yoders took the precious time to lock the best of summer into a shelf-stable product—a nearly lost traditional food stable that embodies Hooper’s philosophy in the kitchen. “I love cooking because it’s that combination of cultural, social, and maybe even spiritual work,” says Hooper. “And it’s physical. It’s a very tangible thing.”