by Maria Reidelbach
Growing up, my Uncle Ferd said that if you wanted sweet corn for dinner, you had to get a pot of water boiling on the stove, then go out to the field and pick the corn, running as fast as you could back to the bubbling pot. If you accidentally tripped and fell, you threw the corn away and started again. That’s how passionate even Appalachian country folk were about a seasonal treat only available for a couple of short months each year.
Those were the days of old-fashioned sweet corn—you really did have to cook it the same day as it was picked because after just eight hours half the sugar has converted to starch. Nobody in their right mind ate day-old corn (nor did they put their tomatoes in the refrigerator).
More ancient types of corn are still eaten in Mexico, where they were developed over eons by the Maya and the Inca from a grassy precursor called teosinte. The early corn couldn’t be eaten raw, and archeologists are pretty sure that the first way corn was cooked was simply by throwing it in a fire and letting it pop out—and ancient popcorn has been found in caves to prove it. These cultures went on to use selective breeding, picking seed from ears displaying desirable traits, to develop many varieties of corn.
Corn was grown in many colors including white, yellow, red, and blue, and different types of corn were used for different purposes. Some were ground into meal to make tamales and tortillas and the first corn chips, called pika. Some corn was kept whole for posole stews. Accordingly, the ancients created as many words for corn as the Inuit did for snow!
Ingeniously, the ancient Mexicans also discovered that if the corn was prepared with an alkaline ingredient, like ash or lime, it both removed the tough skin and unlocked the amino acid niacin so that the corn protein was radically enhanced. When Europeans arrived and discovered this marvelous food, they grew the crop but abandoned the Native cooking methods. The result, when corn was used as a mainstay diet for the poor, was “corn sickness” or pellagra, a nutritional deficiency that caused rashes, sores, sore joints and muscles, and eventually insanity. It wasn’t until the 20th century that science caught up and realized that it wasn’t an element of corn that caused illness, it was the lack of an amino acid.
The corn eaten to this day in Mexico are all the hard varieties, what we call—with our limited corn vocabulary—field corn. I recently spoke with Roberto Rodriguez, a Mexican American farmer living and working in Gardiner, about it. When I asked him about corn, his eyes misted. He talked about atole de maiz, his favorite corn dish, which he grew up eating for breakfast in Guanajuato, in the heart of Mexico. Making atole is a lengthy process and involves toasting corn meal, soaking it, regrinding it, adding milk or water, cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined sugar)—the recipe varies throughout Mexico. The result is a thick, delicious and filling drink. “When you drink atole, you’re not hungry for the whole morning,” declared Roberto. “Every day my mother made a big pot—we drank a half a gallon every meal.” Sounds like comfort food to me!
Roberto is so fond of corn that he named his place Three Sisters Farm, in honor of the traditional companion planting of corn, squash and beans. These plants thrive together because the large squash leaves shade the ground, keeping in moisture and discouraging weeds, the bean vines climb the corn stalks, and also return nitrogen to the soil, needed by the corn and squash. The three plants also contain a great variety of nutrients and so the people eating them thrive, too. By chance, Roberto and his wife Maria also have three daughters, giving their farm’s name even more personal meaning.
These days, Roberto and his family sometimes eat American sweet corn, a variety that’s not popular in Mexico, where any fresh corn that’s eaten is unripe hard corn, or green corn. Here in the United States, sweet corn became transformed in the 1960s and 1970s when scientists experimented with mutated seeds, and corn with a super-sweet gene appeared. The first ears were scrawny and tough, but through selective breeding and hybridization, the new corn became plump and juicy. Since the 1980s these varieties have taken over the fresh corn market. With names like Sugar Buns, Honey, Triple Sweet, and Kandy Korn, these ears are very sweet, very tender, and will stay that way for a week or more! There’s no denying that this corn is delicious, but I think this might be a transitional phase on the way to corn that is both sweet and tasty, with more of the traditional nutrients and flavor found in the ancient varieties.
What concerns many consumers these days is genetically engineered corn, and while researching this column I was queried several times about local sweet corn. None of the local farmers I asked are growing genetically engineered sweet corn (also called “Bt” sweet corn). They say their customers don’t want it. If you want to know, ask your farmer what varieties he or she is growing. It’s the best we can do until there’s a label law, and a really good reason to buy from local farmers you can ask.
Mexican Grilled Sweet Corn
For this adaption of a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, a combination of mayo, sour cream and Parm approximates Mexican queso (if you can get the real deal, use it instead). After a tasting, Roberto gave this version the thumbs up.
- 4 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 3/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or local aged, hard cheese
- 1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- pinch salt
- 4 teaspoons lime juice
- 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
- 6 large ears of corn, shucked
Get your grill going and oil the grate.
While the grill is heating, mix the vegetable oil, salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the chili powder and rub down the ears.
Mix the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Grill the corn over hot coals, turning until lightly charred on all sides, 7 to 12 minutes. Remove from grill and slather with mayo mixture.
From the Stick to Local Farms Cookbook
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Reach her at email@example.com.