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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Amaizing Grace


Sun Prairie's annual Sweet Corn Festival happens this weekend, the modern manifestation of an ancient ritual that marks the seasonal return of abundant food supplies. The annual planting of corn, rising of shoots, budding of ears, and beginning of harvest have marked the calendar for Wisconsin peoples for more than 1000 years. The time when the first corn was ripe enough to eat was always an occasion for great celebration.

Maize was grown in fields like this one starting about 900 A.D. Indian cooks put it into stews, or dried and ground it to make "sagamite," described here by Fr. Jacques Marquette in 1673:

"The first course was a great wooden platter full of Sagamité, - that is to say, meal of Indian corn boiled in water, and seasoned with fat. The Master of Ceremonies filled a spoon with Sagamité three or four times, and put it to my mouth as if I were a little child. He did the same to Monsieur Joliet." (from his journal of the famous exploration of the Mississippi).

But no member of the community could eat the year's first fresh corn until the "Green Corn Festival" (or ceremony) had been held. This ritual of thanksgiving to the Great Spirit was celebrated by tribes from Maine to Texas and beyond, including those Eastern Woodlands tribes whose home is Wisconsin. Rev. Cutting Marsh described the rhythm of the Sauk and Fox summer this way in 1834. They leave on their summer hunt near the "last of June or the first of July, but leave their old men, a part of the women and children to take [care] of the corn fields. This hunt lasts about 40 days or until corn is fit for roasting, when they return again and remain at their villages fasting, dancing, etc. etc. until corn is harvested, which is about the first of Sept." Each point on the seasonal cycle was marked by a community celebration.

As you enjoy the annual summer ritual of sweet corn, remember that some version of it has been part of Wisconsin life for more than 1,000 years.


:: Posted in Curiosities on August 17, 2006

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