It’s More Than A Cob Of Corn

The most interesting thing I learned this week is that you’re not supposed to tear back the husk of the corn cob to check the kernels before you buy it.

Tradition holds that you’re supposed to trust the corn vendor and know that the corn was picked at the perfect time. If you’re worried about it, feel for plump kernels beneath the husk.

If I’ve insulted anyone at Anderson’s all these years for taking a peek at the first rows of kernels, I apologize.

We expect a lot from our corn in Western New York. I’ve been to other states where they serve corn on the cob that wouldn’t pass muster around here. We’re blessed with the very best.

Beyond being a local favorite, the story of corn is actually an amazing tale. Our Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, and from humble beginnings, corn now constitutes 21 percent of human nutrition across the world.

Some say corn built the New World, as it’s been planted, consumed, worshiped, processed, and profited from for seven centuries.

But the origin of corn is a bit of a mystery.

It’s not a food that just grew in the wild, like blueberries. It’s actually taken some archaeological expertise and detective work to determine its origins and how it was cultivated.

At least 7,000 years ago, people living in central Mexico developed corn, starting with a wild grass called teosinte. But teosinte looked nothing like our corn today. The kernels were small and spread far apart unlike the neat rows of kernels on the cobs we enjoy now.

What this means is that Native Americans genetically modified corn, using patience and several hundred years to produce a desired result.

And wherever corn went, civilization followed. And surprisingly, the most important changes in civilization were not dependent on the forces of politics or religion…but food.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba in 1492, the natives gave him two gifts: corn and tobacco. Corn was a valuable gift-the basis of civilization in the New World. The natives had an entire mythology centered around the plant. It was the cornerstone of their religion.

And since it was easy to grow and traveled well, the corn crop spread around the world. Corn grows everywhere — everyplace but the North and South Pole. It has the incredible talent of adapting itself. Damp? Dry? High? Low? Corn can grow there.

And here’s what makes it even more important: it can be eaten by both man and animals. It literally feeds the world and everything in it.

The Europeans didn’t really take to corn for human consumption, probably because they don’t recognize the difference between field corn and sweet corn. And think about this: when the Europeans came to conquer the Americas, they didn’t have women with them. So there was no culinary-minded people taking the secrets of tortilla making back to Europe, or the wonderful recipes that made corn so palatable. All the Europeans had to judge this new food was whatever stale products or plain corn meal the conquerors brought back with them.

They weren’t all that impressed. Even today, the French only serve corn to their cattle. In fact, we’re the only country in the world to really develop sweet corn, the only country obsessed with corn on the cob.

So, is this the most perfect plant on the planet? Well, possibly, except for one problem: thanks to that tough husk, corn can’t seed itself. The husk can’t be removed by nature, so it absolutely depends on human beings to survive.

In a healthy corn field, corn grows slowly during the day but faster at night. Under ideal conditions, the plant will glow more than four inches in 24 hours.

A lot of American farmers have said they can actually hear their corn growing. That might sound silly, but you have to think about the size of the cob, and that it’s growth involves unfurling leaves. If a leaf suddenly unfurls, it makes a sound as it scrapes the stalk. You might have to sit patiently for awhile at peak growing season to hear it.

It’s nearly impossible to buy anything in an American supermarket that hasn’t been effected by corn: we have corn syrup and corn starch and corn oil. Alcohol contains corn. Even our food packaging contains corn.

Corn does everything: it helps things to stick or not to stick, it thickens, it holds and it lasts. It’s the ultimate food and the driving wheel of the American economy. It grows well, it travels well, sells well, and in four months a single grain can multiply itself 800 times.

The writer Jonathan Swift said, “Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”