Photo by Chris Smith.
We drove the back roads from Asheville, North Carolina, to the Dark Corner of South Carolina. This was old bootlegger and moonshine country, where sorghum molasses was made with forgotten knowledge and seeds were buried deep in freezers like hidden treasure. Angie Lavezzo, general manager of Sow True Seed, drove while I took in the old barns painted red and set to crumble, the poplar and pine trees, and the farmhouses and winding roads. We were on our way to meet local contact Clarence Gibbs, who had sold Lavezzo a couple of pounds of ‘Cox’s Prolific’ corn seed on Craigslist. While we both care deeply about seed, it’s not our standard practice to drive around the Southeast hand-collecting our purchases. This was a special occasion for a very special seed — or so we hoped.
In 2017, David Shields, Ph.D., food scholar and flavor saver, had distributed a list of his top ten most wanted lost culinary plants of the South. A corn cultivar long thought extinct made that list under the name ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ As an avid fan of Shield’s work, and a long-time steward of seeds, Lavezzo connected her purchase of ‘Cox’s Prolific’ with ‘Cocke’s Prolific,’ and so the adventure of rediscovery began. Shields quickly acknowledged the high likelihood of ‘Cox’s’ and ‘Cocke’s’ being the same corn, and Gibbs happily agreed to take us to the farmer, a friend of his, who had grown it. That’s how Lavezzo, Shields, and I found ourselves arriving at Manning Farmer’s home the week before Thanksgiving of 2017.
A Prolific History
Shields has authored many books, including Southern Provisions, which explores the creation and revival of Southern cuisine. His depth of research from archived magazines, newspapers, and seed catalogs is astounding, and he weaves it all together to tell the fascinating history of people and food. In the communications leading up to our visit, Shields shared some of the history of ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’
In the early 1800s, General John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation, Virginia, worked to improve a landrace corn cultivar to use as a field corn. He created a flinty white dent corn with stout, 18-inch ears, named prolific because each stalk produced at least two of these long ears. Cocke was a friend and agricultural associate of Thomas Jefferson, and the corn quickly became adopted throughout Virginia as an excellent meal corn, where it was known simply as ‘Virginia Field Corn.’ As other prolific corn cultivars were introduced to the market, ‘Virginia Field Corn’ began to assume the name of its creator, and, by the 1870s, it was commonly known as ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ By the 1890s, the corn had won a reputation for its quality, productivity, and performance, and the seed was nationally available until the 1930s. During World War II, commercial availability of the seed ceased, and, by the turn of the 21st century, it was considered extinct. Shields began actively searching for the corn in 2013, but Lavezzo’s Craigslist lead was the closest he’d ever come to finding it.
Photo by Vanessa Chardos.
The Heirloom and Its Heroes
Certain objects popped from the landscape as we pulled into Manning Farmer’s gravel driveway just outside of Landrum, South Carolina: an outhouse with a moon carved in the door, an old tractor and various pieces of machinery strewn around, peanuts hanging from a covered deck, and lots of old wooden buildings. In the background lay a field of fallen corn stalks recently harvested, and, in the foreground, Manning waited for us by his trellised muscadine grapes.
Manning Farmer on his property. Photo by Chris Smith.
At 95 years of age, he somehow mimicked the landscape: worn and weathered but still standing strong, like the sheds he had made from planks he had milled. Dressed in denim overalls, a plaid shirt, and a large baseball cap, Manning didn’t just look the farmer — he was still the farmer. His son, Darrell Farmer, certainly helped, and shared the same tanned face and easy smile as his father, but it was made clear to us that Manning still earns his name in the fields and with the crops.
Manning Farmer's son, Darrell, peels open an ear of 'Cocke's Prolific.' Photo by Chris Smith.
As we walked into the fields, remnants of ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ were scattered about. Darrell picked up one cob as long as his forearm to show the average size of this “prolific” corn. While we examined the rejected cobs, he shared some of the family history. Darrell’s father’s uncle had originally bought seeds and begun growing the corn on their family property in the 1930s. Darrell’s father, Manning, took over planting the corn after World War II, and continued to grow and save the seed, maintaining its varietal purity, for over seven decades. His father ground the 14-row, flinty white dent corn for meal in one of those sheds he had built. In a second field, we saw long ears of corn bent over and drying on stalks.
Photo by Chris Smith.
Shared and Standing Tall
While ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ is considered extremely rare, Manning had no shortage and generously shared cobs with Shields and Lavezzo so it could be grown and shared again across America. After our visit, Shields took his cobs and shared them with University of Kentucky, North Carolina State, and historic sites in Georgia. He also shared some with Pat Brodowski, specialty gardener at Monticello. When I later spoke to Brodowski, she was extremely excited to have the corn return to Virginia.
David Shields with Manning Farmer. Photo by Chris Smith.
“‘Cocke’s Prolific’ grew tall and strong, with large cobs about 4 feet high on the stalk,” she said. “We’ve had tremendous rain and wind storms this year, and this corn weathered it all. It is a thrill to bring back a variety of corn that Jefferson must have treasured from his friend John Hartwell Cocke, and to share the story of its discovery by David Shields. That story brings home how heirloom seeds survive for generations, and that we can actually taste the cuisine of Jefferson and people of his time.”
Lavezzo shared our cobs of ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ with one of Sow True Seed’s most trusted seed growers, Michael Rayburn of Rayburn Farms in Barnardsville, North Carolina. Rayburn was entrusted with expanding the available seed. “It has been a real joy growing this variety,” Rayburn reported. “It puts on stout stalks that this year have held up well against three separate tropical storms, and with that has performed very well when other crops have suffered due to nitrogen leaching from all the rain we had. I can’t recommend enough that gardeners and lovers of corn give this heirloom a try.”
Michael Rayburn of Rayburn Farms stands next to his growing 'Cocke's Prolific.' Photo by Vanessa Chardos.
A Tasty Revival
With the rediscovery of lost cultivars comes the revival of lost flavors. Many of these heirlooms were developed in a time when flavor was of utmost importance, before primary considerations of uniformity, storage, and shipping became objectives in agriculture. ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ was known as a superior meal corn. It was certainly superior enough that Manning continued to grow it for his entire adult life! As more seed becomes available, and as its reputation reclaims culinary America, I’m sure we will see many fantastic creations with this corn.
Photo by Michael Rayburn.
‘Cocke’s Prolific’ was also known as a corn that was great roasted while in its milk stage. This was in a time before super-sweet hybrid corns, and I was intrigued to explore the flavor potential of roasted dent corn. After he was entrusted with the seeds, Rayburn kept a close eye on the development of the corn, waiting for the kernels to weep a milky residue once cut. The ears first had to tassel, and then silk, and once the silks began to die back, he knew the cobs were close. Mike Reppert, chef at Asheville’s Blackbird Restaurant, was on standby with his grill.
When the harvest day came, a small group gathered at the restaurant to share the forgotten flavors of grilled ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ The grilled corn tasted good, a kind of earthy wholesomeness entirely different from the generic supermarket hybrid sweet corn we had grilled for comparison. A dish of butter had been provided, but no one used it, preferring instead to absorb the full experience of ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ “I like it,” Reppert said. “It’s great to taste the flavors and not just the sweetness.”
Photo by Vanessa Chardos.
Perhaps the highest testimony was a small stack of cleaned cobs and a barely touched plate of sweet corn. And as is often the case with heirlooms, I was left with the thought, “Oh! So, this is what corn is meant to taste like.”
Spotlighting Sow True Seed
Today, there is a resurgence of appreciation around food, farming, and flavors. The Slow Food Ark of Taste is a collection of plants and seeds regarded as culturally significant, and ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ joins many other important cultivars aboard the Ark.
Additionally, in a timely fashion, ‘Cocke’s Prolific’ corn seed is available for the first time in over 70 years! You can purchase seed from Sow True Seed’s website to support their work and help preserve a classic heirloom.
Photo by Sow True Seed.
It is an important part of Sow True Seed’s mission to encourage as many people as possible to grow their own food and save their own seed. This is partly for food security, but also for seed security. “Whenever we acquire rare or threatened seeds, it is our aim to grow and distribute them as quickly and as far as possible,” Angie Lavezzo says. “While we consider ourselves the stewards of many rare seeds, we are much happier when lots of people are growing and saving them!” Learn more about Sow True Seed’s mission and explore their extensive seed collection, including ‘Cocke’s Prolific,’ at Sow True Seed.
Chris Smith is the communications manager for Sow True Seed and executive director of The Utopian Seed Project. His book, The Whole Okra, will be published in June 2019.