Amaizing Corn: How Sweet the Taste
by Marjorie Dorfman
Eating green corn has a higher mission. It puts one as close to nature as lying in a bed of lilies. ~ Edward S. Wilson, The Poetry of Eating, 1908
Corn is the great link between the ancient Americas, native and colonial populations after the European Age of Discovery and modern summer time eating. In its many forms, corn (and beans) was the mainstay of native American cuisine. It was ground into meal to make breads, cakes and porridges, including an Indian bread made with cornmeal, salt and water called corn pone (from the Algonquin word, apan, meaning baked). Planted on hills of mounded soil, the corn stalks supported the climbing pole beans, which in turn provided nitrogen for the corn roots. Large-leafed squash and pumpkins sprawled along the ground where they kept weeds out, moisture in and provided a diet balanced with proteins and carbohydrates.
Maize (Indian corn) dates back more than 8,000 years and represents the most remarkable plant breeding accomplishment of all time. Native Americans developed many kinds of corn to accommodate the length of growing season, altitude, rain, sun and soil type. These included hominy (large, hard kernel), flint corn (hard), dent corn (soft) and flour corn (soft). Some were early ripeners and some were not, and all of them were grown in a variety of colors. Maize was known to the Incas centuries before Christopher Columbus set his brave Italian footsies upon the soil of the New World. Upon his arrival, he marveled at the lush vegetation and infinite variety of strange plants that they found, maize among them. Perhaps, he realized at this point that the plants, along with most of the native population, might not have wanted to be discovered.
The story of maize is deeply rooted in native American folklore and traditions. The Hopi Indians (like the Navaho and many other Pueblo tribes) grew maize for their basic food. They based religious ceremonies around the cultivation of the corn and developed more than twenty-four varieties, although the blue and white was the most common. A Hopi bride-to-be ground corn for three days at her future husbands house to prove she had "wifely skills". When a Hopi child was born, it was given a special blanket and a perfect ear of corn to welcome it into the world. On the twentieth day of life, the infant was traditionally taken to the mesa cliff and held up to the sun. When the sun hit, the baby was given a name. (It is not known what the Hopi alternative was during rainy, inclement weather and bad hair days.)
Is there a difference between corn and maize? Does margarine tell butter? The whole matter kind of boils down to a tomato-tomahto situation, but the derivations of the words are most interesting. The English corn can be traced directly to an Indo-European word that was something like grn, meaning small nugget. The word evolved in different directions through the German and Latin languages. From the Germanic came korn, meaning a cereal grain (edible grass seed). The diminutive form of korn is a kernel, signifying a small grain. Grain from the Latin is granum. Both the Latinate grain and the Germanic korn are therefore, generic terms used to refer to any edible grass seed (such as sorghum, barley, millet, rye oats, wheat and maize). When English and German speaking immigrants flowed into the New World, they referred to the local grain (Zea MayL) as corn, but differentiated it from their own variety by calling it Indian corn.
Back in 1492, before Fred Astaire and the others all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round, one of the islands he discovered in the Northern Antilles was populated by Tahino people in whose language their staple crop was mahis. The name meant source of life and the Spanish spread the Taino name for the plant wherever they distributed it in the name of Ferdinand, Isabella and the Holy Whatever. The word was transmuted phonetically into maize in English and maiz in Spanish. Within a half century of Columbuss first voyage, Spain had conquered the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations and established an enormous colonial hacienda. The Spanish empire did not destroy the pre-Columbian agrarian system. Instead, it introduced Old World plants, animals, tools and foods that co-existed with the Indian system. All this was accomplished without benefit of an American Express card, ATM machine or even The Cooking Channel!
Early American settlers learned quickly how to grow and eat corn. One of their earliest dishes, soup porridge, adapted from a native American dish, combined New World hominy corn and beans with Old World root vegetables and preserved meats. The dish became the backbone of early frontier dining where, between fending off hostile Indians, grumpy outlaws, not so OK Corrals and bad weather, there was little time to pursue culinary pleasures. Had it not been for corn, which is so easy to store and needs so little maintenance, Europeans might not have survived the colonization of the immense new continent. It produced so much per acre (especially when compared to wheat) that it allowed time for clearing fields, planting, developing family feuds to kill off nasty in-laws and building fences and roads.
American ingenuity followed the enterprise of the early Indians and put corn to many uses, including puddings and breads. Corn oysters were sweet corn fritters and sweet corn, dried or roasted, kept the flavor alive for almost a year. Raising hogs on corn or distilling corn liquor (white lightening) were simply other ways to preserve ones crop. As Americans left their farms and populated the cities, a plethora of corn related products made their way into new urban homes and lifestyles. By the late 1800s, cornstarch and corn syrups were manufactured commercially, packaged under brand names and sold in local stores to housewives. Producers of kitchenware were selling cast-iron corn stick pans in a variety of sizes, stovetop popcorn makers and corn graters that sliced through the kernels and scraped the pulp into a bowl, all in one motion. Cookbook authors responded to the desires of home canners, and produced countless variations of chutneys and relishes. They are found everywhere within the early corn chowders, salads, stews, soups, fritters and puddings.
Sweet corn has always had a mystique all its own. At first, only the farmers who grew it could say they knew its true taste. The sooner eaten after picking, the sweeter it was because corn sugars change to starch quickly. According to folk wisdom, the only way to eat sweet corn is to boil a large pot of water on the stove, go out in the field and pick what you need. Then run back to your house as fast as you can and if you stumble, discard what you picked and go back to the field for fresher ones. Recent hybrids hold their sugar longer, and have made it possible for city dwellers to enjoy something close to the real thing (close, as they say, but no cigar).
Whether you boil, steam, bake or roast it, the outcome is clear. No matter how you prepare corn or what you add to it, the end result will be delicious and nutritious. Varieties are endless; breads, chowders, relishes, fritters, salads, stews, dumplings and as Yul Brynner used to say, etcetera, etcetera. Its versatility is limited only by the confines of ones imagination and is only one part of its charm. Just remember that every time you bite into an ear of corn, you are biting into history (and perhaps stepping on some native American toes as well.) In any case, we are all free to enjoy natures bounty. I would go on about this, but my neighbor is having a barbecue and is serving among the burgers and franks something I cannot resist, grilled corn on the cob. See you after dinner.
Did you know . . .