Of all major garden crops, corn may be the most versatile, varied, adaptable, and delicious staff of life a gardener could grow.
Starting in Mexico many thousands of years ago, then Peru, the rest of South and Central America, later North America, then from these continents to everywhere else over the past 500 years, home-grown maize has become so precious that local cultures world-wide believe it is their own indigenous crop. As author Michael Blake says, " humans grow maize and maize grows humans."
The recipes from thousands of local cultures in a range of latitudes and climates are staggering. They hail from hundreds of different varieties of corn—whether popcorn, flint, dent, flour, or sweet--and from different parts of the plant (stalk, cobs, kernels, leaves) plucked at different stages of ripeness.
Maize is both food and drink, sweet and savory: for its sugary juice, kids throughout the ages have sucked on corn stalks as on sugar cane. Humans have relished corn on the cob, soups, stews, casseroles, fritters, salsa, dumplings, porridge, pudding, polenta, ugali (corn fufu) hominy, posole, grits, tamales, koki corn, tortillas, piki, griddle cakes, cornmeal, corn bread, other breads, cakes, crackers, cookies, corn dogs, sauce-thickeners, tea, whiskey, beer, and other drinks, coffee (using ground corn the way we use ground coffee), huitlacoche, candy, dips, movie food, and so much more around the world. Farmers make it into silage-- “animal sauerkraut--” for livestock and use it as animal bedding.
Maize's source culture in Mexico and South and Central America has given us the indispensable process of nixtamalization, which has not always followed when seed corn has found its way overseas. Nixtamalization deepens the flavor and makes corn's niacin bio-available. I nixtamalize all but fresh or popped corn; the result deeply fulfills some primitive, ancient longing in me for the time when food had startling, intense flavor--when food was real. As it can be when we grow our own.
My family also grows corn because, having experienced the weather extremes of wildfires, floods, and droughts here, we are grateful it can adapt to such a wide range of environmental situations. Thanks to the plant itself and its growers over the many centuries. Small growers now are doing the same thing for the future.
Maize cultures over the centuries have also prized its use in mats, mattresses, baskets, cushions, hammocks, shoes, medicines, dolls, brushes, bottle stoppers, toilet paper, smoking pipes, cob-smoking hams, fuel, bait for fishing and hunting, household cleaning, house-building, glue, jewelry, wreaths, murals, and other art.
Once I started making friends with the particular varieties we have grown, I found myself falling in love with the many surprising expressions of this species of grass.
Betty Fussell in her epic book The Story of Corn, which informs and inspires this post, says that when someone can't stop thinking about corn that person may have “corn madness.” Plant geneticists, growers, whole towns have it. She has it, I have it. Among us, there's always an extended hand for sharing seed and an open invitation to continue the discussion.
In the next posts we'll be doing just that.
Pamela Sherman trials corn with her husband, Steve, at 8300' in the Rocky Mountains. They are with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) as grain trialers, seed stewards, and she is a seed teacher trained by RMSA. She serves on the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste Committee for the Rocky Mountain/Southwest Region. She can be found online on the RMSA Facebook pages.
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