Hominy (hom-uh-nee)

What it means

One of the all-time great food words is "nixtamilization," which isn't just fun to say, it helped to transform the way people eat.

As Gustavo Arellano wrote in "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," nixtamilization is "one of those food-chemistry wonders that, like fish sauce or sauerkraut, is a testament to the human capacity to let food rot in the quest to create a tastier product - and, in this case, unleashing a modest food's full potential."

Arellano was referring to the pre-Columbian practice of soaking dried corn kernels in lime and ash to remove their hulls and deaden their germs. Although the technique was probably first designed to make corn easier to grind, the resultant chewy nubs (known as pozolli in Nahuatl, a native Mexican language) also were more resilient, better tasting and more nutritious than untreated raw corn.

The method traveled wherever corn did. In his classic book, "Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History," John Egerton quoted an old-time recipe from Montezuma, Tenn. calling for 21/2 gallons of dried white corn kernels and 2 tablespoons of lye.

Southern cooks were apt to boil hominy the way Northern cooks boiled potatoes, but hominy can also be added to stews, chopped or dried and milled to make hominy grits. And here's where the terminology gets confusing: According to Anson Mills, hominy grits is an extinct foodway. But in the Lowcountry, fresh-milled stone-ground grits are traditionally referred to as hominy grist. Once cooked, the coarse grits become "hominy" in the local lexicon.

Where to buy it

Check the Latin food aisle of any supermarket for canned hominy. A 15-ounce can typically sells for a few dollars.

Where we saw it

Graze (Cornflake-Crusted Catfish With Butterbean, Sweet Corn, and Hominy Succotash And Cherry Tomato Jam, $10)

Where else you can try it

Squares of fried hominy (in the Lowcountry sense) are a standard side item at The Wreck, while Los Parados is one of many area Mexican restaurants offering pozole, a pork stew with hominy (in the ancient sense.)