Pop and Parch Heirloom Corn

Heirloom corn varieties are a lasting legacy bestowed on us by our farming ancestors.

| April/May 2006

Corn (Zea mays), or maize, as it is called in many parts of the world, is one of the most diverse treasures bestowed upon us by our farming ancestors. Over the centuries Mesoamerican farmers, beginning in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, slowly created the plant we now recognize as corn — starting from a short, nondescript grass called teosinte, which bears just a few seeds surrounded by extremely hard shells. Corn has been grown extensively in North America for more than a millennium and has since spread throughout the world, becoming one of the most widely grown crops on the planet, second only to wheat.

Given the productive nature of corn, which is capable of providing hundreds or even thousands of edible kernels from a single seed, it's no wonder that the crop found a place in the cultural and spiritual traditions of many indigenous peoples. But heirloom corn varieties are endangered today. U.S. agribusiness produces more than 12 billion bushels of corn per year on 80 million acres of land to supply our industrialized food system with inexpensive animal feeds, sweeteners and other products. Most of the corn used for these purposes comes from modern hybrid and genetically engineered varieties that have been bred for maximum yields rather than flavor or nutrition, and that are dependent on environmentally damaging synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

The corn I am in love with is the traditional kind of corn; the sacred corn of ancient farmers; the corn that is adapted to grow with low inputs and in difficult conditions; the corn that comes in a spectacular rainbow of colors and various sizes and shapes, each representing the work of hundreds of unsung farmer-breeders. These rare heirloom corns offer home gardeners history, beauty and outstanding flavor. Two great ways to enjoy these delicious flavors are by traditional cooking methods — popping (roasting in oil) and parching (dry roasting).

Popping Corn

Popcorn is one of the most ancient forms of corn — ears more than 5,000 years old have been discovered in New Mexico caves. Popcorn varieties are flint corns, which have a hard shell that protects the starchy, slightly moist embryo inside. When the kernel is heated above 400 degrees, the moisture inside expands, causing an explosion that pops it.

If you're looking for movie theater-quality popcorn, grow Robust 128YH, which is a high-yielding, gourmet corn with glossy yellow kernels. For a denser and chewier, though slightly less productive variety, try Japanese Hulless, an open-pollinated (OP) type that, as the name implies, leaves little of the hulls attached after popping.

The benefit of growing an OP variety is that you can save your own seeds for planting the following year, and they will reproduce true to type, unlike a hybrid. Recent research suggests the many-hued traditional corns pack additional nutritional properties. For the adventurous, there are dozens of interesting popcorn varieties available in a broad array of colors and sizes, from 4- to 6-inch Dakota Black to 2-inch Strawberry.

4/27/2007 5:03:54 PM

Great article.

4/25/2007 12:03:14 PM

Great article! I'm curious about the 5000 year old cobs found in New Mexico. As far as I know the earliest corn in North America is only 4000 years old. Do you have a reference on that date?

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