I found Kyle on his block, rake in hand, tilling the soil. An honest yeoman. And one who seems to be surrounded by vegetables: his block is positively brimming with good things. “We’re going to do corn this month,“ he said leading me down to a couple of rows of his corn crop. He pulled a cob off the plant and peeled back the outer leaves. “Eat this,” he commanded. I have never eaten corn straight from the plant. I am here to tell you that this is an eating experience that you cannot miss: the sugars have not had a chance to turn to starch. It is crunchy and juicy; it is sweet and satisfying. I wished I had not had lunch.
I found a reference that said that “in the Americas, maize is called corn, somewhat confusingly for the rest of the English-speaking world.” The word ‘corn’ tends to be used for the most important local grain: hence the use of the word in the Americas but not, for example, in the UK where it is either maize or, as my mother always called it, corn-on-the-cob. Clearly, we are part of the Americas as we call it corn. Its scientific name is Zea mays which is clearly where the name comes from. I’ll use the words corn and maize interchangeably.
Maize is not a naturally occurring plant; rather it is the result of the domestication and cultivation of a plant called teosinte. The seeds of wild teosinte are encased in hard shells, arranged on a spike in five to seven rows, that shatter when the grain is ripe to disperse its seed. Modern maize has hundreds of exposed kernels attached to a cob which is completely covered by husks and so cannot reproduce on its own. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the connection between teosinte and maize was discovered by a fellow called George Beadle who went on to share the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his work on genetics.
Above: An ear of teosinte (Photo by Frank N. Foode: plantpeopleblog.com) Beadle calculated that only about 5 genes were responsible for the most-notable differences between teosinte and a primitive strain of maize. The earliest domesticated maize cobs date to about 4200BC in Mexico. From there it spread northwards to what is now the United States reaching Canada by about 700AD.
Above: The Mayan maize god
For the Mesoamerican peoples, maize was a staple and not surprisingly is reflected in their mythologies. Maize plays a central part in the Mayan accounts of the creation. There are several cycles of creation accounts. In one story two figures called the hero twins rise to the heavens to become the sun and the moon and they prepare the way for the planting of corn and for human beings to live on Earth. In another cycle the deities finally created humans out of yellow and white corn. Maize didn’t make it to Europe until Christopher Colombus brought it back from the Americas. By the late 15th century traders were bringing corn from Mexico to Europe where it was mainly fed to cattle. By the 17th century corn was being grown in China, India and on the coast of East Africa. Regular readers of this series will know I refer regularly to Pliny’s Natural History to see what he has to say about various vegetables. In the case of maize, he is not helpful. My second source is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. Published almost 2,000 years later, he is a bit more forthcoming. He notes that corn is “the fundamental food plant of the United States, although three quarters of the crop goes to supplying us with eggs, milk and meat.” In other words, much of the crop goes to animal feed. Kyle grows his corn from seeds (the seeds are the kernels that we eat). He sows them straight into the ground and they are ready about 14 weeks after sowing. The crop he is harvesting now was planted in early October. They are hungry plants needing lots of nitrogen and plenty of water. The cobs can be invaded by the corn worm. This is not too much of a problem as the worms can only get to the top 2 or 3 centimetres of the cob which you can cut off. Each plant grows two cobs and the cobs are ready when the silky bits at the end are dry and brown.
Before we look at the health benefits of eating corn we should perhaps look at a nutritional problem. Up to three quarters of the niacin in corn is bound in such a way that the human body cannot process it. Niacin is part of the B vitamin complex and it is essential to our brains, nervous systems and digestive tracts. Eating corn as a staple can lead to pellagra which is caused by a deficiency of niacin. Corn was introduced as a staple to the southern parts of the United States about a hundred years ago and this led to high levels of pellagra or corn sickness. It took many years to discover that the culprit was not contaminated corn but corn itself. So, you may wonder, why did the original Mesoamericans not suffer from pellagra? Well, they were smart cookies: they prepared their corn in a lime solution. They discovered (though they did not know why) that the use of an alkali in preparing corn prevents pellagra. Of course, our diets are (or should be) reasonably balance so we do not need to cook corn in ash or soak it in lime. There seems to be some debate about the health benefits of corn. There’s no doubt that there’s a benefit to your general level of well-being as you devour well-prepared, sweet and succulent kernels from a cob. And anything that you eat with your hands brings out that primeval sense of being at one with nature. Or it does for me. Some of the debate about health benefits relates to the degree to which the stuff you buy in tins at the supermarket has been genetically modified or grown with the aid of chemicals that you may not wish to consume. But corn is a good source of soluble and insoluble fibre and can help in controlling cholesterol levels. Yellow corn is a source of beta-carotene, which forms vitamin A in the body and is essential for maintaining good vision; so eating corn may be good for your eyesight. And you can use corn starch to soothe skin irritation and rashes. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published in 1861 and is responsible for the several sins of English gastronomy. She knew about what she calls “Indian corn”. For a Victorian she is remarkably charitable toward a vegetable that would have been unusual (and, therefore, to the Victorians a risky matter). She says that “this vegetable, which makes one of the most delicious dishes brought to table, is unfortunately very rarely seen in Britain; and we wonder that, in the gardens of the wealthy, it is not invariably cultivated. Our sun, it is true, possesses hardly power sufficient to ripen maize; but, with well-prepared ground, and in a favourable position, it might be sufficiently advanced by the beginning of autumn to serve as a vegetable.” She says that you peel them and then boil them for 25 – 35 minutes. By this time the sugars would all have turned to starch, and the corn would be pretty much tasteless. There are better ways. The G’s corn Preparation Take two corn cobs. Wash the outside husk (leaves) and dry well. Peel back the husk but leave attached. Remove silk from corn (or as much as you can)Melt 1 teaspoon of butter with 1 teaspoon of maple syrup then add some ground black pepper Brush the butter mixture onto corn kernels, and re-wrap husks back over cobs Secure ends with string or a strip from the husks Microwave on high for 3 minutes or BBQ till slightly charred on outside Consumption Pull back leaves to use as a handle to hold onto your corn cob and gnaw off the kernels Have a serviette ready as it can be messy but very enjoyable Corn soup Now, you may think that this recipe is a bit daunting. But it’s pretty hard to get it wrong and the results will easily outweigh the effort you put into it. People will think you are a hero. And you are. This recipe makes 8 x 125ml portions. Ingredients · 6 Cobs of corn, shucked (cut off corn kernels close to cobs). Keep the cobs, you will need them later · 1 tablespoon grape seed oil (you need a light flavoured oil, olive oil would be too strong)
· 2 medium onions, diced
· 4 cloves garlic, chopped
· Salt, to season
· Maple syrup, a dash to season
· ½ cup milk or buttermilk
· Croutons for garnish
· Basil oil (see below)
· Corn stock (see below) Method Basil oil Blanch 2 cups picked fresh basil leaves for 10 seconds in boiling water, place in iced water immediately. Drain and dry well with paper towels Blend the leaves on high speed with 1 cup of grape seed oil until puréed Push through a sieve This will last for 2 weeks in the fridge Corn stock Place the cobs in a saucepan, cover with about 8 cups of water. Weigh down cobs with a plate to keep covered Simmer for 30 minutes Remove cobs, slice remaining corn bits close to cob into stock and discard the cobs Soup Put oil into a pan, sweat the onion and garlic for 3 – 4 mins Stir in corn kernels and toss through till warmed then add ground pepper Add 4 cups of corn stock and salt Simmer 10 – 15 mins until corn is cooked Add maple syrup to balance flavours and leave 10 mins to cool a little Blend until smooth on high in two batches Strain through a fine sieve, stir in milk or buttermilk and check seasonings Chill or freeze until needed Reheat and whisk a little to lighten it up Serving Serve with a swirl of basil oil and croutons for crunch Popcorn Popcorn is a particular variety of corn; you can’t take the stuff that you will buy at the market and make popcorn. If you doubt me then you can try it; dry the kernels and then try to pop them; they will burn and stick to the bottom of the pan. You can grow popcorn, but you can’t grow it with other varieties as it cross-pollinates and then … well, you don’t get popcorn. Archaeologists have found remnants of popcorn that dating to about 3500 BC