Anthony Boutard's new book, Beautiful Corn: America's Original Grain from Seed to Plate has left me more excited about the diversity of, and reasons for growing corn than ever before. My ancestors developed many beautiful heirloom corn varieties and introduced them to farmers and gardeners worldwide, so it's rare for me to find so much joy in a new book on the topic. Boutard's modern ethnobotanical approach to the beautiful variety in corns quite simply motivates me to increase my own collection of old corn varieties and the space we devote to growing them. Much more than a how-to guide or variety history, Beautiful Corn weaves the story, culture and natural history of corn into a practical work that helps us understand just why corn is so near and dear, and gives us some insight into how to grow it, use it and select for traits that will allow it to thrive in virtually any reasonably favorable microclimate. Add to the mix, a delightful sprinkling of the author's own quest for a corn that could thrive on his 144 acre organic market farm in Gaston, Oregon and the reader experiences an invaluable glimpse of the invaluable thought processes that a seasoned grower employs as a matter of course.
Beautiful Corn very briefly surveys the origins of corn. From there, the book heads on a compelling trail that only so plastic and migratory a grain like corn could take. We learn that corn is a grass with fantastic water use efficiency compared with most other plants and what the various parts of the kernel are -- and how they relate to things we eat. Boutard has a knack for taking complex science and rendering it palatable to a more general reader, without diminishing the science itself. As a scientist, I appreciate that. And as a person who loves corn, I appreciate that Boutard so successfully encapsulated the relevant science in discrete kernels every bit as lovely as the kernels of his beloved Roy's Calais flint. Finally, we learn the hows and whys of growing various types of corn and how to use them in our daily lives.
If I had one quibble with the book it would be an incompleteness in the background on corn's genetic origins. On one side of that discussion, we had Nobel Laureate George Beadle's work linking corn to Teosinte, and on the other Paul Mangelsdorf's work suggesting that Teosinte was not the wild ancestor. These two great scientists had a wonderfully cordial, but contentious public discussion on corn's origins that often played out on the editorial pages of Science and Nature. I'll make you read the book to discover which of these scientists got it right from the beginning.
Beautiful Corn is nicely illustrated (including a number of color plates) and should be mandatory reading for every farmer, gardener, foodie and consumer out there. Read this book to understand why corn should still be celebrated!
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.