Imagine arriving in a brand-new country. The culture you find is different from that which you’ve left, and the people seem suspicious of you. But never mind that. You’re tired, hungry and willing to try anything – even corn products you know nothing about.
You recognize wheat in the fields, and oats are familiar to you, too. You know rye and millet, but these people are growing something you’ve never seen. The plants are huge – taller than you are – and they seem to worship it. The seeds are large, too, much bigger than seeds you’ve ever seen. And the taste? Good stuff.
That’s what happened to Christopher Columbus and his crews when they came to Mesoamerica, where corn was king.
Although Columbus might have thought he’d just stumbled upon something grand and new when he loaded corn onto his ship for the voyage home, Native Americans had been growing corn for some 5,000 years before Columbus set foot in the New World.
No one knows how the plant itself came into existence (Mayan culture says that corn was given to man by the feathered God Quetzalcoatl), but experts think it originated in Central America or Mexico and was traded hand-to-hand. Corn played an important part in Aztec and Mayan religion and cultivation spurred its spread northward. Scientists believe that corn became “domesticated” about 4,500 years ago.
When Columbus finally returned from Cuba to Barcelona in 1493, great excitement surrounded his arrival. Though he hadn’t found the trade route he sought (he thought he had), he came back with many wondrous things that Europeans had never seen. In writing to his patron, a Spanish cleric described (in Latin) one of them: an amazing plant that Columbus said the natives called “mahiz” (or maize).
It didn’t take long for maize to spread around Europe and Asia, or for confusion to reign. Twenty years after Columbus’ first voyage, Portuguese sailors took maize to China (where the Chinese tried to lay claim to its beginnings). Traders carried it to Turkey and India. The French called it Turkish wheat (and sometimes still do). Farmers in several countries on three continents swore that the crop originated in their area. European botanists couldn’t wait to get their fingers on “Corne.”
While it’s unlikely that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America with all the foods we traditionally attribute to their feast, it’s fairly certain that corn was on the table, though they called it “Indian corn.” To them, “corn” was a word that encompassed several kinds of grain including wheat. Adding the distinction differentiated maize from all other seeds.
They, and other early settlers from Europe, learned how to plant, nurture and cultivate corn from their Native American neighbors, as well as how to reap and store the harvest and use the grain. For many, hoecakes, corn mush and bread supplemented what wild game was caught. Corn meant the difference between survival and cold starvation.
Explorers of this new country – including Lewis and Clark – enjoyed corn on their journeys, often using it in trading and receiving it as gifts of hospitality. It’s possible, however, that Meriwether Lewis got an early taste for the vegetable from Thomas Jefferson, who cultivated corn in his garden and probably shared his bounty with Lewis.
For most people, there are two kinds of corn: the one you can eat and the one you can’t. But the story of corn varieties doesn’t begin or end at the dinner plate.
Mid-19th century scientists had known for some time that manipulating genetics and crossbreeding plants could result in better crops and higher yields. It wasn’t until the late 1870s that William James Beale proved it by literally bagging tassels and ears. This meant, in the long run, astounding increases in kernels on the cob, more cobs, hardier plants and bigger harvests.
That increase revolutionized farming, but it also meant a lot of work for the hybrid companies; someone had to detassel acres and acres of corn in the process of growing a new breed of plant. That led to a slew of steady summer jobs for high-school and college students. Detasseling is largely done by machine today, but old-fashioned handpicking is still needed for “cleanup.”
There are six basic kinds of corn:
And that brings us to a sort of subcategory of corn that is mostly grown in home gardens: heritage or heirloom corn.
Hybrid corn is exactly that: a hybrid of certain plants, carefully chosen (or genetically engineered) for certain characteristics and carefully pollinated with those genetics in mind. Somewhere around 95 percent of American corn acreage is made of hybrid corn.
Heritage corn – the genetics of which are at least 50 years old but can be thousands of years old – comes from open pollination, which means that the plants are allowed to pollinate via the air, with little to no control on “parentage.” That, says Kathy Greentree of Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, “keeps the gene pool more diversified,” and it keeps our food supply safer, in case of genetic catastrophe.
Unlike hybrid seeds – which must be bought anew every year – heritage seeds can be saved and passed on from generation to generation and from gardener to gardener, much like a favorite and much beloved gardening tool. Most heritage seeds, in fact, are grown by home gardeners. Kathy Kretzinger of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, says a gardener can get (and grow) seeds descended from plants raised by Thomas Jefferson.
So if heritage corn is a hand-me-down only grown in small batches and is somewhat uncontrolled, why bother saving it at all?
Kretzinger says that heritage corn is “healthier. It tastes better. And it’s a sustainable type of agriculture. We don’t have to worry (if) someone says ‘I’ve got all the seed and you can’t have them.’ You can keep your seeds, and you’ll have food that year and the year after and the year after.”
Skelton believes that those passed-down seeds preserve historical knowledge. “It connects us to our past and what people ate.”
Think corn is just for someone’s dinner? Believe it or not, no matter where you are as you’re reading this article, you’re probably surrounded by products that use or are made entirely of corn. About 25 percent of the products in a typical grocery store, for instance, contain some form of corn.
You might have had corn for breakfast (it’s in many cereals, breads and muffins), and if you fed your dog a commercial dog food this morning, he probably had corn, too. The cat’s kitty litter might have corn cobs in it, and because corn can be finely ground, your makeup and shaving cream may contain some, too. If you take a prescription medicine (or just an aspirin for health), or if the baby has diaper rash, the chances are that you’ve both consumed some corn. And guess what? Corn is in your toothpaste.
Corn whiskey contains corn, of course, but so do some beers, sodas, instant coffee and tea, and, in a roundabout way, your milk. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, check this out: Corn is often found in cake mixes, candy, yogurt, cookies and granola bars, as well as in crunchy corn snacks.
As you jump in your vehicle to go to work or run errands, you can thank corn yet again. Corn starch goes into the production of tires, and corn is found in spark plugs. If you mailed a package while you were out today, you used corn in packing “peanuts” and tape, and if you’ve used a “green” cleaner, you’ve cleaned with corn. As you head back home, you can gas up using ethanol, which is, basically, corn.
Oh, and when you get back home, say hello to more corn: some paints and certain brands of wallboard are corn-based. Then, as you settle down for the night, you settle in with corn: corn pellets are an efficient way to heat a room, and corn is used in some high-quality bed linens.
Want to pay homage to corn? Check out these sites:
The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, is located at 604 S. Main St. Open year-round and with free admission, this a-maize-ing building is decorated on the outside with 275,000 fresh corncobs each year. Visit the website, www.CornPalace.com, or phone 605-995-8427 for more information.
Washington, Missouri, home of the Missouri Meerschaum Co., is known as the Corncob Pipe Capital of the World. If you’re so inclined, you can visit the company to see where pipes were made for Douglas MacArthur, Mark Twain and Dwight Eisenhower. Visit the company’s website, www.CornCobPipe.com, or phone 800-888-2109 for more information.
Tiny little Olivia, Minnesota, is known as the Corn Capital of the World. Just 90 miles west of Minneapolis, Olivia celebrates Corn Capital Days the last weekend of July. ( www.Olivia.MN.us , 320-523-2361) Hoopeston, Illinois, is the Sweet Corn Capital of the World. Its Sweet Corn Festival is held in the fall. ( www.Hoopeston-IL.gov , 217-283-7872) And the Seed Corn Capital of the World is Constantine, Michigan. ( www.ConstantineMI.com , 269-435-2085)
In addition, you’ll find several dozen corn-eating contests around the country, plenty of corn mazes each fall, and who can forget rooting for the Cornhuskers? Go team!
So where will corn go next? It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that we’ll need more of it.
The biofuel industry is constantly experimenting with corn to make efficient, sustainable fuels that won’t hurt the environment. Ethanol is here to stay, and some farmers believe that its use may surpass that of oil. Technology could also lead to ethanol-powered small appliances. Plus, as heating costs increase, it’s possible that more homes may be converted to burn inexpensive corn or corn products to warm the whole house.
The food industry will need more in order to feed a world population that increasingly relies on corn and its related products, although obesity concerns may cause the use of high-fructose corn syrup to wane.
Manufacturers, tired of the rising prices of other raw materials, are turning to plentiful corn in new ways, too. Carpet and rugs, clothing and hangers, cups and dishes, plastics that protect electronic gadgets, and bags made of corn are durable, completely biodegradable and non-allergenic. There’s no doubt corn will prove useful in many more everyday products as research continues.
As for the plant itself, scientists are experimenting with ways to make corn more heat-and-drought tolerant (to grow in tropical climates and thus, help stamp out hunger) and to better crops for even higher yields.
To the Mexican farmer who makes it into tortillas, it’s maiz. Swedish cooks call it majs, and Polish picnickers call it Kukurydza. Any way you cut it, corn is versatile, easy to grow, and a-maize-ingly mmmmmm-delicious.
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.
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