Corn, the Wonder Plant

As a cook and culinary historian I have often found the multifunctional uses of food interesting. Take corn, for example. Besides it obviously being a vegetable and grain (botanically speaking it's actually a type of grass), it also produces cooking oil and a myriad of sweeteners, mainly corn syrup, and its natural starch is refined to a powder and used as a thickening agent. Even cornhusks are sometimes utilized as cooking vessels, such as with tamales, and what would a good film be without popcorn.

Corn is also a key ingredient in certain whiskeys, but did you know that corn is also used in dozens of lesser-considered items, and not all of them are food related. Corncobs, for example, when finely ground are relatively dust-free and very absorbent. This absorbency makes them useful carriers for pesticides, fertilizers, vitamins, soaps, cosmetics, and animal litters. The coating on aspirin, for instance, which makes them so easy to swallow, is an oxidized starch that is often derived from corn. And the fuel that is produced from refined cornethanol is potent enough to power automobiles, and the very tires on which we drive, owe some of their production to corn. Their molds are sometimes dusted with cornstarch to keep them from sticking.

These are just a few of lesser-known corn applications. It's no wonder that corn literally dominates American agriculture, its production is nearly double of any other.

Food folklore can also be interesting, but often easily misconceived. In the case of mind-altering corn I found this out first hand. Let me explain. Back in the mid-to-late seventies I was a teenager that had yet to hear the phrase "just say no." Anyhow, friends and I were broke and in dire need of a toke. Sitting at the edge of a cornfield in the hot sun (the suburb where I spent my teen years had not yet become the consumer's paradise and land of strip malls that it is today) our conversation turned to the song Mellow Yellow, by Donovan.

After much debate over whether or not the song was making reference to corn or bananas we eventually became convinced it was corn. In a sad state of teenage desperation (or was it angst?) we plucked some delicate tufts of "silk" straight from the plant and rolled it in cigarette paper. The only "high" that we achieved was slight nausea. We coughed and we coughed. (Many years later I read that the mellow yellow in question referred to the dried inner pulp of banana peel, which can in fact be hallucinogenic, but by the time I learned this information I was far past my quest for mind alterations.) Today I rationalize this experience as my very first culinary research project.

At any rate, this incredible food that we now know as corn is native to the Americas, South and Central America actually. There's evidence that native peoples have been growing and consuming corn for thousands of years. In fact, 5000-year-old corn fossils have been found in archeological sites. But it wasn't until Columbus made his fateful journey and took corn back to Spain that it became known in Europe. Corn was originally called maize in English, taking its name from the native Ma-hiz, and today is still referred to as mais and maiz in French and Spanish.

Interestingly, if it were not for the generosity of native peoples, the European settlers would have most certainly perished their very first winter. Their first year in the New World was a particularly hard one, more than 50 of the original 100 pilgrims expired during that winter. But Native Americans helped the settlers, among other things, work the land and show them how to plant corn with dead fish as fertilizer. And one of the recipes the settlers learned from the natives was a simple one -- how to boil ground and dried corn into a sort of nutritious mush. The Europeans called the dish "Indian pudding," and later just "mush," which is no doubt a precursor to the currently ever-so-trendy polenta, which can be found on upscale menus from coast to coast.

Like most vegetables corn is good for you and low in calories. It's a good source of vitamin A, and one medium ear has only about 70 calories. While corn can be found in the supermarkets all year, its peak season is early summer to early autumn. Once corn is picked the natural sugars in the kernels begin to turn to starch, thus if you prefer it sweet it's imperative to purchase corn that was recently picked. Look for ears with bright green husks that are snuggly fitting and have yellow silk, browning indicates age. The kernels should be plump, milky and firm, and they should come all the way to the ear's tip; dimpling also indicates age.

Recently I drove down the car-clogged highway close to where I used to live. The landscape is barely discernable to the one I once knew. The hill where I used to ride my dirt bike is now a fast food restaurant, a movie complex stands where a good friend's home once did, and I'm pretty sure that the spot where I did my first culinary research is a parking lot flanked by stores and apartments. And now, at this point in my life, I can honestly say that the lesson learned some 25 years ago still stands true: corn is better eaten than smoked.


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