A-maizing corn has been around for centuries

For the next few weeks fresh sweet corn will be available at roadside stands, farmers markets and even grocery stores. When the corn is fresh and sweet, it can set off a buying frenzy among shoppers. Everyone wants a dozen ears of corn when it’s fresh and sweet.

Ancient origins

A taste for sweet corn reaches deep into history. Early inhabitants of the Andes Mountains in South America used corn as a source of sugar before the introduction of sugar cane and honey bees.

Getting truly fresh sweet corn today, however, is easier said than done. Corn that sits too long loses its sweetness as sugars convert to starch. Grocery store corn is often several days removed from the field when we buy it.

Even at roadside stands we must take vendors at their word that the corn was picked “early this morning.” And the “fresh” corn-on-the-cob in restaurant buffet lines usually makes a mockery of the word “fresh.”

Local roadside stands and farmers markets, especially if you know the vendors, are usually better bets for fresh corn. But if you’ve managed to ward off hungry raccoons and deer to grow your own corn, there’s nothing better than husking freshly picked corn and putting it directly into a pot of boiling water.

Alternative

Unhusked corn also can be roasted on a bed of coals in just a few minutes. A little butter and a dash of salt turns a simple grass into gourmet fare.

Botanists classify corn as a grass, Zea mays. Each plant is monoecious; that is, separate male and female flowers are found on each stalk. The “tassels” at the top of the mature plant are the pollen-producing male flowers (pollen is sperm).

The “silk” that emerges from the top of each ear of corn is a portion of the female flower. When a pollen grain borne by the wind reaches a strand of silk, it moves down the silk via a pollen tube to the egg. Fertilization occurs, and a kernel of corn forms.

Each mature kernel on an ear of corn is the result of successful fertilization. An ear of corn bears 300 to 1,000 kernels, and each stalk bears only one to three ears. The cob is protected by modified leaves we call the husk.

I suspect most people enjoy fresh corn-on-the cob, and many have memories of eating it at childhood summer picnics. But corn has been around for a long time. Its roots can be traced to prehistoric Mexico.

Beginnings

The earliest corn, or maize as it is known in Mexico, dates back at least 9,000 years. Cobs of this early corn were no doubt puny and primitive by today’s standards, but native people saw its potential and cultivated it.

There’s little doubt corn played a prominent role in the success of early Latin American cultures. Slowly corn spread throughout the Americas. Columbus carried seed back to Europe.

Today, its various cultivars (sweet corn, field corn, popcorn, Indian corn, etc.) grow from sea level to elevations of 10,000 feet. Given sufficient moisture and a long enough growing season (130 to 140 days), corn grows almost everywhere.

Importance

Corn ranks as the world’s most important cereal crop — 817 million tons worldwide in 2009. Though we enjoy fresh sweet corn for just a few weeks each summer, around the world corn has been a staple for centuries.

It is the main ingredient in traditional porridges of Latin America, Africa and Asia, in tortillas and tamales of Latin America and in hominy of North America. And who can watch a movie without a bag of overpriced popcorn?

Versatility

Industrially, corn is milled in either a dry or wet form to make various products we use every day. Dry milling yields cornmeal, corn flour, and grits, which can then be used to make breakfast cereals, pancakes, cookie mixes and snack foods.

Wet milling yields corn sweeteners and corn oils. And it’s an important food for livestock everywhere it’s grown. No doubt about it, corn is “a-maizing.”

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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