The last thing Americans need in their collective diet is more sugar, and yet more sugar is about all the sweet corn breeders think about these days, aside from genetic modification to make the plants pest-proof or, worse yet, pesticide proof. Folks have been convinced that sweet corn is the only corn worth growing in the garden — or eating.
The truth is, sweet corn is but the tip of the culinary iceberg when considering this ancient grain.
It might be because I’ve never owned a set of real front teeth for more than a couple of months, thanks to some childhood accidents, or it might just be that I don’t like butter-soaked vegetable matter dripping down my chin, but I think sweet corn eaten on the cob is highly overrated. I enjoy sweet corn off the cob, I’m just not a member of the sweet corn fanatics club. I don’t grow it in my garden at home or in my market garden, and I don’t eagerly anticipate those first ripe ears showing up at the farmers market. I do love corn though.
The corn that I love is diverse, with endless variation in color and texture and flavor. The corn I love is a celebration of selective breeding, natural mutation, agrarian culture –- it is a living link to people and palates long past. Some of my favorite corns taste corny, some barely taste like corn at all, none taste sweet. Most of my favorite corns are easy to grow and have per-acre yields that are laughable by modern production measures.
Why popcorn pops
Some folks call it field corn, others call it ornamental or “Indian” corn. I call it lovely and delicious. The corns I am on about fall into the flint, flour and dent classifications, and all can be ground to make flavorful meal. Flint corns are characterized by a hard “flinty” seed coat and a somewhat translucent, dense starchy endosperm. Popcorns are derived from flint corns; they pop because the hard coat seals a little moisture inside and when that moisture turns to steam it expands enough to blow the kernel into a starchy puff. Flour corns have a softer seed coat and contain a “fluffier” starchy endosperm that maintains a full kernel shape when dried.
As a youngster in North Dakota, I was a huge fan of cornbread, and even cornmeal mush for breakfast — pure corn flavor with a bit of butter (how bad could it be?). But I never connected the dots among hybrid field corns, typically grown for animal feed and modern commercial cornmeal, Indian corns and sweet corns. Cornmeal came from a round cardboard box, after all. At that time I was blissfully unaware of canned or frozen corn. I enjoyed popped corn, but that stuff was magical and I couldn’t even fathom that it was related to any of the open-pollinated and hybrid field corns I had seen growing in my family’s fields.
Corn rose to a new level of interest during a college genetics class. I relished the highly mathematical outcomes probabilities associated with Mendelian inheritance calculations involving corn kernel color, shape and endosperm chemistry as much as I did the cornbread I baked in my Chicago apartment. Corn was awesome stuff. But it would still be many years before I really “got it” about corn.
Native American staple
I was farming in South Dakota when an anthropologist friend gave me some seeds of a corn variety that my great-grandfather Oscar H. Will had introduced to the European immigrant farmers in the Dakota Territory. This friend had spent much of his professional career studying the Oscar H. Will & Co. seed business, its relationship to settling the plains and its contribution to modern hybrid corn genetics. The corn came to my grandfather from the Arikara (or Arikaree) people via soldiers at Ft. Stevenson, Dakota Territory, in the early 1880s. A multicolored flint corn called Ree, it was a staple among the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara folks who had farmed along the upper reaches of the Missouri River for centuries. I grew out the seed for many years and eventually lost it — but not my fervor.
All the corns I’ve grown since have been beautiful. Some I fed to the chickens and hogs, but most I enjoyed as centerpieces, door hangings, or tied to lampposts — until I read Gilbert Wilson’s “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” which contains Buffalo Bird Woman’s oral account of Arikara farming practices. It was a culinary inspiration. Turns out, all of that lovely corn was grown to be eaten, used in soups and stews, parched in a skillet until soft enough to chew, ground into meal.
Shortly after reading and rereading Buffalo Bird Woman’s stories, I procured an old grain mill and began to make my own cornmeal from the flint and flour corn varieties I had collected. Today, I grow almost all of my family’s corn and grind all of our cornmeal from favorite flavored varieties. You can grind your corn in a blender and use it to make polenta, pizza crust, cornbread and mush among many other dishes.
Don’t limit yourself to sweet corn. If you have the space and inclination to grow your own, three varieties among my favorites are: Mandan Bride flour, Bloody Butcher dent and Floriani Red flint. All tend to be easier to grow than any sweet corn I’ve had experience with. Why not grow some in your garden this year, grind it into meal and enjoy real corn flavor in your cooking?
Hank’s Pizza Crust
- First, whisk together the yeast, warm water and honey in a large bowl and let it sit until the yeast is active, which takes about 10 minutes.
- While the yeast is waking up, combine flours, cornmeal and salt in another bowl — be sure the components are well-mixed.
- Next, add oil to the liquid (whisk briefly) and combine with the dry ingredients, mixing with a wooden spoon.
- Turn out the well-formed ball onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is soft and pliable — 3 to 5 minutes or so.
- Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning once to coat, and let sit, covered, for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the dough has doubled or tripled its volume.
- Finally, cut the dough in half (makes two large crusts; store in Ziploc plastic bags up to 2 days in fridge or weeks in freezer), roll out on a floured surface and transfer to a preheated pizza stone or cast-iron pizza pan.
- Add toppings and bake at 450 F for 12 to 15 minutes.
- Place ¼ cup peanut oil in 10-inch cast-iron skillet and place in the oven. Preheat oven and skillet to 400 F.
- Whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, and ¼ cup peanut oil. Set aside.
- Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and baking powder. Combine the two mixtures and stir just until wet.
- Pour batter into heated skillet and bake for 20 minutes.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Hank Will, is the editor in chief of GRIT and Capper’s magazines and author of a new book, “Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking With Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient.“
Top photo: Hank Will. Credit: Karen Keb.
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Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Hank Will’s book “Lard.”
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