Corn meal has a not insignificant place in America’s humble beginnings. In their first New World winter, the pilgrims saw their wheat cache go bad, their major source of food. Before they could die from hunger, friendly Native Americans bearing corn meal saved the day and paved the way for a country that would eventually have ridiculous reality television in every living room and big box stores in every hometown.
“Corn meal’s been around a long, long time,” says Paul Drumm III, owner of Kenyon Corn Meal Co., a major provider of the product, at least in Rhode Island’s notable corn-meal corner of the world. “I’m on sort of a crusade to secure its rightful place in history.”
Drumm does that mostly by talking to anyone who wants to know about the history of corn meal, or grist mills in general, and as the owner of one, Drumm knows his stuff: The mill in Usquepaugh, a village of South Kingston, has been in the Drumm clan since 1971 when his dad, the late Paul Drumm Jr., bought it. There has been a mill on the site, adjacent to the Queen’s River (which once supplied power to the massive grinding mill wheels), since the late 1600s.
You want to know anything and everything about corn meal, ask Drumm. One thing I never knew is that corn meal is as American as red, white and blue – literally. They make and sell all three types here, and a whole lot more, including the best honey-and-oat pancake mix on the planet.
“Red corn comes mostly from the west, blue from the southwest and white, also known as flint corn, mostly from the northeast,” Drumm said, adding that the familiar yellow corn meal (makes the best muffins), comes from the south.
Johnnycakes are made of meal and, believe me, a meal can be made of them when bathed in butter and slathered in syrup (or you can do what I also do, just eat the batter because really, it’s grits — but way better than the southern kind).
To make the perfect johnnycake, “You have to get the water boiling hot,” says Drumm. “Then you add to the meal, the meal floats, you mix it up, add a little more water, shoot some milk in, a little salt and when it’s nice and goopy, you drop it into a hot pan and cook for six minutes on one side, five on the other, no less.”
Pretty simple, like the whole grinding process, which takes place between two massive horizontal stones, one that spins (the runner stone) and one that doesn’t (the bedstone). It’s the way it’s always been done at Kenyon’s, Yankee ingenuity in the form of two-and-a-half ton slabs of Westerly granite, the same ones used for well over a century now.
Grain comes down a hopper, rests in a wooden holder called the shoe, which is agitated by something called a damsel. That coaxes it gently into the center of the runner stone, which works the grain outward into the thin space between it and the bedstone. The resulting meal is forced out into shiny barrels, rolled to the packing room and, voila, your single-pass, stone-ground meal awaits.
Being a miller back in the day was something requiring great skill – and guts. The mill used to run with a lot more moving parts than it does now, and millers could get hurt or killed by broken machinery bouncing off a giant stone spinning at 100 rpm. Dust was a big factor then, too; a smaller explosion would signal trouble and when the miller went to check the first boom, a second bigger one would often claim his life.
A miller had to adjust the space between the stones depending on how fine a grind was sought; bending over to closely eyeball that gap makes it easy to envision where the term keeping your nose to the grindstone came from.
The Drumms came to own Kenyon’s because Paul Drumm Jr. needed to feed his family. He was a computer repairman when computers filled entire rooms, got hurt on the job, and was looking for work. He saw an ad: “Business Opportunity – Grist Mill.” He remortgaged his Wickford house, busted a window to get into the locked-up mill, borrowed a few bucks for gas for deliveries, and the Drumms have been drumming up business ever since, selling in local markets, the internet (kenyonsgristmill.com) and some high-end places like Dean & DeLuca in New York City. But the best way to get a taste of this historic operation is to visit Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaugh, just off Route 138 between Route 2 and I-95. It’s open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed weekends after Christmas during the winter.
Photos by Paul E. Kandarian