Open-pollinated sweet corn is a cut above the rest.
It's hard to imagine summer without corn on the cob. No summer picnic would be quite complete without fresh sweet corn served buttered, salted, peppered or plain.
Enjoy garden-fresh sweet corn in this recipe for Maude Bachman's Deep-Dish Corn Pie.
It’s hard to imagine summer without corn on the cob. No summer picnic would be quite complete without fresh sweet corn, served buttered, salted, peppered
or plain. I remember when corn on the cob, corn fritters, or deep-dish corn pie would be on the menu every day for weeks when the corn was in.
No matter if you boil it, steam it, grill it, or roast it in wet burlap, you just can’t beat sweet corn’s fresh-from-the garden flavor. Also, let's not forget cut corn, cream-style corn, dried corn, and corn pudding served throughout the year.
Sweet corn belongs to a family of at least six different types of corn. The rest of the family includes popcorn, dent (field or grain), flint, flour, and waxy corn, plus an ornamental family member called pod corn. A kernel’s starch is what makes each type of corn different from the others, except for pod corn, which has little papery husks around each kernel. Sweet corn doesn’t convert sugar to starch very well, at least compared to other corn types; that’s why sweet corn kernels shrivel as they dry. It’s also what makes sweet corn taste, to put it simply, sweet. Most people are familiar with the three most famous types, yellow, white and bicolor (a mix of both colors), although there are also red, black and multicolored varieties.
To be fair, flint, flour and dent corns can all be used as roasting ears if they’re picked in the “milk stage,” when a punctured kernel produces a milky juice. They may not be as sweet, but they definitely have a delicious corn flavor. Native Americans roasted green field corn for corn on the cob; and I’ve also eaten roasted early harvest field corn many times. Often, city folk in the early 20th century ate it too, without even knowing their sweet corn was actually field corn picked at just the right time for optimum sweetness. New Yorkers in the early 1900s ate ‘Adams Early’, ‘Extra Early Adams’, and ‘Adams Improved’ early sweet corn without knowing they were really buying dent/field corn.
A New world crop
Corn (Zea mays), or maize, is a New World crop that has been grown for thousands of years in both North and South America. Surprisingly, most Native Americans probably didn’t grow sweet corn. Single kernels of sweet corn have been found at many different archeological sites across North America, but there’s no cultural tradition or even specific word for sweet corn in most Native American languages. Although we don’t know whether most of those ancient seeds were from crops of sweet corn or just chance mutations of grain corn, we do know that sweet corn was deliberately cultivated in three different regions in the New World: the Northeast, Mexico, and Peru.
The first written reference to sweet corn was made in 1779 when General George Washington commanded General Sullivan on a “scorched earth” campaign against the Six Nation Iroquois living in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania and New York. The maize growing in the region caught the attention of Lieutenant Richard Bagnall (or Bagnal), an officer in Sullivan’s force; so he collected some of it before the army set fire to the Iroquois fields and store houses. When Lt. Bagnall returned to his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, he brought seed of this new maize with him. This maize, which the Iroquois called “papoon,” produced a sweeter roasting corn with white kernels that shriveled as they matured and dried.
Unfortunately, sweet corn remained lost in obscurity until 1825 when sweet corn appeared in American seed catalogs for the first time. By 1829 it was entered in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Show. Amazingly, in 1853, 74 years after Lt. Bagnall’s discovery, the U.S. Patent Office only listed two cultivars of sweet corn. As the late 1800s came to a close, new cultivars began cropping up quickly, with names like ‘Howling Mob,’ ‘Mammoth Sweet,’ ‘Stowell’s Evergreen,’ and ‘Country Gentleman,’ the most famous of the shoepeg corn.
Apparently, no one was talking about sweet corn in Europe, either, as it took until 1883 for any European reference to sweet corn. Vilmorin, a French seed dealer and gardener, wrote about seven different cultivars that year, all distinctly American. By 1899 there were over 60 named cultivars in America, although many historians believe there may have been many regional duplicates.
Run, don't walk from the field
Ironically, the sugar in sweet corn converts to starch at an amazingly rapid pace, especially in older, heirloom cultivars, thus reducing that sweet flavor we all have come to love. Many seasoned gardeners laugh about having a pot of water boiling before picking sweet corn for supper, but for gardeners growing older cultivars, this is not a joke. As my mom used to say, “You can take all the time you like going to the garden, but you better run like the devil coming back!” Mark Twain even suggested boiling corn in the middle of the cornfield the moment it was picked and shucked. Many gardeners insist that sweet corn shouldn’t spend more than half an hour between the patch and the pot, and will often start heating the pot of water before they pick a single ear. The University of Perdue looked into this, and estimates that open-pollinated corn loses 50 percent of its flavor 12 hours after harvest if it’s not promptly refrigerated.
At one time, this rapid change caused major difficulties for hucksters selling sweet corn in the big city. Starchy and tough 3-day-old corn was the norm, to the point that disgruntled customers accused marketers of trying to pawn animal feed or low-quality field corn off on them when shipping delays would produce poor quality corn. However, one letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1903 stood up for corn hucksters, reporting that 3-day-old corn could still be tender and sweet — if you were willing to pick and pack it into insulated barrels at two in the morning when the air was so cold your hands hurt!
Refrigeration and modern hybrids have changed that. Some hybrids maintain their sweetness by slowing the sugar conversion rate, and others by increasing the total sugar content of the kernels. Today, people in New York City can buy sweet, tender corn grown as far away as Florida without concern for freshness.
Preservation requires dedication
Today, there are over 100 different hybrids available for the home gardener, including ‘Golden Bantam Cross.’ There is even a new hybrid bred for container gardening, but you better have room for a lot of pots!
As sweet as these modern hybrids may be, heirlooms still have definite advantages over them. Hybrid sweet corns can be slow to germinate and quick to rot in cold soils. Many also need to be isolated from other cultivars of corn. Cross-pollination can spoil the quality of both crops, making them tough and starchy. Seeds saved from hybrid corn cultivars won’t breed true, producing wildly varying and generally poor-quality results. Open-pollinated heirloom corns are vital building blocks for future breeding programs. Most heirloom growers agree that hybrids just don’t have that special indescribable corn flavor they have come to cherish.
However, preserving these cultivars is not a simple task, and usually not a job for a backyard gardener. Corn pollen can travel as far as two miles on the wind, so pollen drift can cause tremendous headaches for heirloom seed producers. How serious is this problem? A Union of Concerned Scientists study on genetically modified crops (GMOs) made the unexpected and chilling discovery that 50 percent of the open-pollinated corn cultivars they tested had already been contaminated by GMO field corn pollen!
Maintaining absolute purity in a corn line requires growing a plot of at least 200 stalks of seed corn in a remote location (at least a half mile from other corn cultivars) or else attempting the painstaking task of hand pollination. Any smaller plot and the gene pools quickly show irreversible weaknesses and genetic defects. Most backyard gardeners simply don’t have the necessary room, time, and energy to preserve a line or cultivar with enough genetic diversity to survive.
Fortunately, seed growers can do the job for us, but they need our help to make the effort profitable. What can you do to help? You can create a demand for their efforts by buying seed corn from them each year. As a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy that old-time corn flavor that you just don’t get in the modern hybrids. Today, gardeners can find 40 or 50 open-pollinated cultivars of sweet corn, many of which are considered heirloom. Most of these cultivars can be purchased from trusted online seed houses.
Your corn patch
Keep a few things in mind as you plan your corn patch. While there are cultivars that promise two or more ears per stalk, you can reliably expect only one ear on each stalk. It is also important to remember to wait until the soil warms to 50 degrees Fahrenheit before you plant so the seeds do not rot. As the Native Americans would say, “Plant when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.” If you want extra early corn, try laying out clear plastic over the area to warm the soil and planting two weeks earlier. If you want a longer harvest season, plan several plantings, spaced two weeks apart, to extend the season through the summer. You can also try planting several different cultivars with different growing times, spreading the harvest out through the season. Allow 9 to 12 inches between stalks, and 2 to 3 feet between rows when you plant. Keep in mind that corn is wind pollinated, so you may want to try a square corn patch, which will provide better pollination than one or two long rows. Better pollination means you’ll get bigger, more evenly filled ears of corn and no one will be fighting for the larger cob at dinnertime.
So, why not rediscover heirloom sweet corn this year? Try a few interesting cultivars either fresh picked and plain, dusted with salt and pepper, or slathered with butter.
You can even take the advice, written in 1890, of Mrs. S. T. Royer, cuisine and etiquette expert, on eating corn on the cob, “While perhaps it is unusual to give recipes how to eat, it is certainly an art to know just how to eat corn. Score every row of grains with a sharp knife, spread lightly with butter, dust with salt, and with the teeth press out the center of the grains, leaving every hull fast to the cob. Corn thus eaten will not cause trouble or produce indigestion, as the hull is the only indigestible part.”
While that may be how turn-of-the-century High Society chose to enjoy corn on the cob, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy corn. Just be sure to have the pot boiling when you head out to the corn patch. If you like, you can try the “Weidman way:” After planting your corn (‘Country Gentleman’ is a favorite of mine) and harvesting it and getting it into the pot as if you’re the Road Runner, take one slice of homemade bread, add lots of butter and then smear the cob with the buttered bread, thus buttering your corn and melting the butter on your soft bread at the same time. Then just dig in and enjoy! When the cob is bare, be sure to stack it by a family member’s plate, so it looks like they ate twice as much corn as they really did!
Enjoy garden-fresh sweet corn in this recipe for Maude Bachman's Deep-Dish Corn Pie.
Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.
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