The food we call corn
As we just enter the time of year when corn is becoming available at roadside stands and farmers’ market tables, I thought it would be fun to examine and present some of the amazing background and history behind the crop, which for thousands of years has become synonomous with human civilization. I fancy that 9 and a half out of ten people have a long held memory which includes corn, an emotional attachment to a food that deserves honor, blessings, and reflection.
Corn in domestication has been traced to as far back as 2500 BC, when the crop began to spread throughout the Americas and constituted a sacred staple crop for an array of indigenous cultures. It remains today the most widely grown crop in the Americas, and its significance and methods of preparation and cultivation is as varied as the forms of the crop itself. By the early parts of the 16th century, corn spread throughout the world and quickly became an important crop because of its ability to grow in diverse climates. Maize is the term used to refer to the crop in neutral settings, as the word corn outside of the US, Australia, and New Zealand can actually be taken to mean any type of cereal crop or any local staple.
The plants can grow short and stout (like the 4 foot parching variety that we’re growing this season), to the standard 6 to 8 foot varieties that we all think of, and some natural strains have been known to grow up to 40 feet, like a cane of bamboo! An ear commonly holds 600 individual kernels, and once a young ear is formed after pollen from the tassel is wind-swept to the silk, it can easily grow a remarkable 3 millimeters a day. The origin of corn remains somewhat of a scientific mystery, but many experts of the matter agree that it has undergone a series of domestications over time deriving from a wild grass called teosinte, native to the Balsas River Valley in southwestern Mexico.
Corn comes in many forms with different qualities, all of which are very worthwhile for food and decoration, while we also have become aware of its use as a modern food additive, biofuel, and for synthesizing plastic, fabrics, and adhesives. Colors range from the familiar white and yellow to purples, reds, blues, and greens. While the juicy tender sweet corn is what most comes to mind when we think of the edible crop, popcorn, dent corn, flint corn, flour corn, and several other types deserve a greater share of recognition for their versatility and importance. I know these ‘other’ forms to be available on a local basis, and equally relish the opportunity to pop local kernels on the stove or cook up a pot of steaming locally-milled polenta for dinner. Seek these types from local farmers and you will certainly be rewarded.
I’ll wrap this write-up with a story of my own about this mother crop. Each summer growing up in Wisconsin, we had a get together at my grandparents house with food and family as the agenda. It was none other than the annual smelt fry, when silvery finger-sized fish were lifted in nets from Lake Michigan by my uncles, then deep fried whole til they were transformed into perfect crispy little fishy french fries. Dozens of fat ears of local bicolor sweet corn were also gathered and grilled, and this is when my Gramma Carol, she of the size 10 mens foot (my brother and I mowed her lawn while wearing gramma’s work shoes), was so genuinely thrilled by the sight of her grandchilden mowing through multiple ears of corn on the cob. While we proudly counted off our perfectly cleaned cobs in her direction, she proclaimed annually with pride how in her younger years she once erased the kernels from 14 cobs of corn on one summer barbecue day, cementing her legend as a lover of fresh local food and creator of thus more devoted corn devourers.
How many cobs of local sweet corn can you clean up? Do let me know if you can top my Gramma Carol’s record of 8,400 kernels!