Kernels of Wisdom – Top Ten Fascinating Facts About Corn
Corn how do we love you, let us count the ways: we love you straight off of the cob and wrapped around a dog; canned or creamed, frozen or fried, corn bread, corn chowder, corn fritters, corn flakes. Whether it’s polenta or hushpuppies, or popped and covered with salt and butter, chances are you’ll be eating some corn this summer. Given its prevalence in processed foods, chances are you’ll be eating some corn today. But did you ever stop to contemplate those little kernels?
Corn, also known as maize, has a fascinating past as well as a million and one modern day uses. Its history is a tribute to human ingenuity reaching back thousands of years. Its uses are many, from delicious food from the kernels to medicinal uses of the silk. The husks can be made into dolls or tamale wrappers. Even the fungus functions.
So put the water on to boil and run out to the field. Or run over to your local farmers market. But as you prepare to sink your long white teeth into those soft, sweet, yellow kernels take a moment to consider. There’s far more to those ears than meets the eye…
There Are A Lot Of Varieties of Corn
A recent National Geographic study lamented the sharp reduction in types of corn in use today, from 307 varieties a century ago to about twelve varieties now. Such is the power of Big Agriculture. However, the statistics are based on varieties offered by commercial seed houses. While this sharp reduction is unfortunate, and symptomatic of greater problems, there are still thousands of different kinds of corn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa holds 19,780 different kinds of corn samples, and Native American cultures throughout the hemisphere continue to grow traditional varieties of corn.
Common varieties can generally be sorted into three categories: Flint corn, has a hard outer shell and colorful kernels. It’s the stuff we sometimes refer to as Indian corn. Dent corn is feed corn, the stuff grown in mass to fatten up cattle and to feed industrial food production. The stuff we like to eat right off the cob, dripping with butter, is sweet corn. So yummy it’s still good frozen or canned.
For a fun garden project, try growing a special type of flint corn, known for it’s hard shell surrounding a starchy center. When the kernels are heated, internal moister turns to steam. Pressure from the steam causes a tiny explosion, better known as a “pop”. You can pop corn, right on the ear, sitting around the campfire, then dip the whole ear in butter…yum!
Corn is in Everything
Well, almost everything.
So we’ve all heard about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but do you really know what it is? It’s exactly what sounds like, corn syrup in which some of the glucose has converted into fructose. Sweet! And compared to table sugar it’s quite cheap, making in it the sweetener of choice for processed foods. You’ll find HFCS in all sorts of foods, from Coca-Cola to ketchup. High fructose corn syrup itself isn’t necessarily bad. What’s bad is that we’ve gotten to the point where we need everything to taste sweet.
Oddly, corn is also found in a whole bunch of non-food products. Hand soaps, Windex, adhesives, varnish, paper, spark plugs and building materials – all made using corn. One of the most interesting ones is toothpaste. Perhaps it’s not surprising that toothpaste has flavoring. Probably makes us more willing to brush. But it does seem ironic that we clean are teeth with food. Maybe instead of brushing we could just eat another ear of corn.
And then of course, there’s gas. Gasoline in the United States is cut with ethanol, alcohol derived from corn. The federal government mandated the use of ethanol after 9/11 in an effort to both reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to make use of excess corn. (The United States is the biggest corn producer in the world.) Ethanol is a mixed blessing. Most of our cars weren’t designed to run on corn and its use contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Bummer.
Corn is All American
Like baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, corn is all American. Actually, corn is way more American than those other things, having been here much longer. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they initiated a planet-changing process known as the Columbian Exchange. Plants, animals, technology, religions and diseases arrived in the Americas from the Old World. And what did the New World give to the rest of the planet? Some really wonderful foods, including fabulous flavors like chocolate and vanilla, and two humble starches, which would become significant staples the world over – potatoes and corn.
The role of corn in the Americas extended beyond nutrition. It lies at the heart of many Native American cultures. It was their source of food and the inspiration for sophisticated systems of irrigation and agriculture. It’s even been speculated that many native cultures owe the development of their complex calendars to the long growing season needed to cultivate corn.
Nowhere is the link between a people and their food staple more clear than with Maya, who developed a thriving culture which left a timeless mark on Mesoamerica. Then and now, the Maya refer to themselves as “The People of the Corn”. Their creation myth, documented in the Popol Vuh, describes how the creator, Heart of Sky, along with some other deities made repeated attempts to create humans, finally succeeding in making mankind out of yellow and white corn. You are what you eat.
Corn Has A Palace
And how many crops can say that? Travel through Mitchell, South Dakota and you’ll see the world’s one and only Corn Palace. And in case you’re wondering, about half a million people do travel there annually to take in this Moorish Revival style building covered with “crop art” (murals made from corn and other grains). The original Corn Palace was established nearly 125 years ago in an effort to promote South Dakota’s agriculture- friendly environment.
The original 1892 building was replaced in 1905 and the decision to build a permanent palace was made in 1919. That third palace was completed in 1921, but the unique decorative features like Moorish minarets and onion-top domes were added in the 1930s. The corny (sorry- had to do it somewhere) murals are replaced every year.
Today the Corn Palace serves many purposes. It is, doubtless, Mitchell South Dakotas premier tourist attraction. It also serves a venue for sporting events, concerts and visiting exhibits, as well as a community center. Not to be separated from its agricultural roots there is also an annual Corn Palace Festival and stampede and rodeo. Consider visiting the Corn Palace on your next trip through South Dakota.
Corn is Controversial
As the primary American agricultural product, the crop that covers the heartland, corn is right in there in the controversy over genetically modified foods. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, three crops – corn, soybeans and cotton make up the bulk of genetically engineered planting and about half the land used for growing is growing genetically engineered crops. So what’s the point of all this engineering anyway? Major objectives include herbicide resistance (as in be able to kill all the weeds in your field by spraying Round Up while leaving your corn standing), insect resistance, drought resistance, and yes- flavor and nutrition.
This writer would like suggest that in our concerns about genetically engineered foods causing cancer and hormone disruptions we might be overlooking the forest for the trees. The most dangerous thing about genetically engineered crops may be their efficiency. Farming does not offer a huge margin of profit. In a world where consumers opt for what is most affordable, where courts side with the seed producer rather than the seed savers and where anything that reduces labor is considered optimal, who will be able to hold against using genetically modified crops? Where in antiquity genetic engineering created vast varieties of corn, it is now likely to reduce diversity. And therein lies the danger.
Consider the other great starchy staple that came from the New World – the potato. Like corn, the spud altered the nutritional outlook of people the world over. Scientists now believe that the pathogen that caused the Potato Famine in Ireland came from the Andes. So why do we know of the Irish Potato Famine and not the Peruvian Potato Famine. After all, if Mesoamericans were the People of the Corn, then Peruvians were and are the People of the Potato. Perhaps the fact that the people of the Andes were never decimated by the same blight is related to the fact that they have about 4,000 different kinds of potatoes. We could learn a lesson from the Ireland of the 1840s. When we narrow the variety in the food chain, we put ourselves at risk.
You Can Eat the Smut
Eat smut?! Well, yes, you can. Thousands of people do. But before getting into the details let’s deal with that word “smut”. That’s the name given (at least in the U.S.) to a fungus, properly called ustilago maydis, which grows naturally on corn. Of course, “ustilago maydis” is a bit of a mouthful. And “corn smut” sounds rather unappetizing. So in Mexico, where it is considered a delicacy, it’s called huitlacoche (pronounced wee-tlah-KOHH-cheh). If that’s still too much of a tongue twister, just call it Corn Truffle. Sounds better than smut.
Smokey-gray globules form on the outside of the corn kernels. As alluded to above, in the U.S., this is typically viewed as a blight to be eradicated. However, in Mexico as well as in several American Indian cultures, this funky fungus is actually encouraged. Why? Because it’s yummy, and it may pack more nutritional value than the corn that it infects.
You can find various recipes using huitlacoche. The most basic method of preparation is to carefully cut the fungus off of the cob and then fry it up with onions, garlic and tomato. You can stuff this into quesadillas, tamales, whatever. The flavor is earthy, smoky, a little weird at first, but actually pretty good.
Corn Can Be Grown Sustainably
What? No chemical fertilizers needed? Soil naturally provides corn with some necessary trace elements such as potassium, zinc, iron and copper. But the most important nutrient for growing corn is nitrogen and repeatedly growing corn in the same place will quickly deplete the nitrogen in the soil. So doesn’t that mean you have to use chemical fertilizers? Not necessarily. Behold the Milpa.
Those early Americans who called themselves the People of the Corn, had an ingenious, though simple, strategy for producing the food they needed. Rather than separating their fields into nice little patchwork squares dedicated to individual crops, a milpa is a field in which several different crops are grown together. Obviously this would be quite a challenge for modern machinery and mass production. But it has some great advantages and is still practiced today in Mexico and parts of Central America.
Along with corn, beans and squash rounded out the Mesoamerican diet. Corn was the primary staple, but as mentioned above, it is a crop that taxes the soil. So beans were planted with it. As nitrogen binders, beans replenish the soil. But beans need something to climb on and in a milpa they conveniently climb a cornstalk. Squash, with their big, broad leaves, which shade the ground and reduce water evaporation, provided the final piece of the puzzle. Those are the basic elements of a milpa, but other items, chilies for example, or avocado trees, can also be added. It kind of makes you think about gardening in a whole new way.
Corn Is A Highly Processed Food…
And has been for thousands of years. That’s right, long before Karo or Kraft, corn was already a highly processed food. And it was a good thing. It actually made, and makes, the corn more nutritious, not to mention tastier and faster to prepare. The process of nixtamalization was developed by Mesoamericans as least as far back as 1200 -1500 B.C.E. and continues to be used today. Here’s how it works:
First, the dried kernels of corn are cooked and steeped in a highly alkaline solution, made by using slaked lime and ash. How the ancient Americans figured out how to do this is a mystery, but their preparation method initiates a chemical reaction in the corn. The corn softens and absorbs calcium and potassium. The protein within the kernels is broken down to a point that it can be more easily absorbed by the human body. Next, the corn is rinsed and hulled. It can then be used fresh, or dried and ground into a flour called masa.
Masa is the raw material for an entire cuisine. All you have to do is add water to the masa and you have a dough which can be made into tortillas, tamales, gorditas, corundas or arepa. Masa continues to this day to be a primary staple in Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica. And to its great credit, Mexico has the unique distinction of having had its cuisine named as a cultural heritage by UNESCO. Vivan los tamales!
Corn is Complex, Genetically Speaking
When scientist finished mapping the human genome in 2003 they got a surprise. Humans, it turns out, are a bit less genetically complex then expected. Less complex than some other works of nature. Less complex than an ear of corn which has 32,000 genes crammed onto 10 chromosomes as opposed to humans’ 20,000 genes spread over 23 chromosomes. Maybe they shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the major themes of scientific discovery is that we humans aren’t nearly as special as we like to think we are. (Even among animals, humans are not the most genetically complex. That illustrious title belongs to a tiny water flea called Daphnia.)
It is speculated that this new understanding of corn’s genome will lead to new genetically designed varieties, building on the process that began thousands of years ago when a few hundred genes were involved in selective breeding in order domesticate the crop.
Even before technology brought us to the point of being able map out a grain’s genome, corn was considered important to the study of genetics. Easily observable characteristics such as the color and texture of corn kernels make it a perfect plant for practicing calculating genetic probabilities using Punnett squares. If you want to give your brain a little exercise and revive the stuff you learned in high school biology, try doing this exercise. Or grab your own ear of corn and start counting kernels.
Corn Was Genetically Engineered…About 10,000 Years Ago
In his fascinating book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan, questions the assumption that humans -as farmers and gardeners- are manipulating plants, and proposes instead that perhaps it is plants that manipulate people (getting us to spread their seeds, weed away their enemies, provide them with water, etc.). The history of corn, its genetic evolution over time and its intermingled relationship with humans seems to make this theory especially intriguing. Indeed, one might well ask which came first, the maize or the Mesoamerican. Consider:
The evolution of corn remained a mystery until recent times. Other grains, wheat and rice, have obvious wild ancestors. But scientists didn’t discover corn’s wild relative, teostinte until the 1930’s. Neither the teostinte plant, nor its kernels resemble the corn we know today. However, genetic analysis has revealed that they have highly similar DNA. This demonstrates how changes to only a relatively low number of genes can result in dramatic changes. Still, it’s curious that those changes happened. We think of evolution as a gradual process in which a species passes through successive steps as it transforms. So why can’t we see that with corn?
Someone intervened. Modern maize developed hand in hand with human agriculture. Early farmers in Mexico and Central America carefully chose which kernels to save and plant. They probably selected for desirable traits like taste and size. Over time this resulted in the corn plant we know today. In other words ancient Native Americans practiced selective breeding in order to genetically engineer modern corn. Pretty clever.
May your stalks be knee high by the Fourth of July. May your kernels be golden and sweet. May you meander through the garden singing “I’m as corny as Kansas in August…” And as you sink your teeth into those delicious ears, may you remember that corn is more than just the taste of summer, more than cheap cattle feed or the filler for processed food. Corn is a miracle, a living, growing, changing representative of the symbiotic relationship between we humans and our food.
So put some palomitas in the popper; fry up some fritters, suck down some succotash. Ears to you!