It's the time of year when most gardeners are sharing an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash. It's also sweet corn season. And who doesn't enjoy fresh picked sweet corn on the cob? The fresher it is, the better it tastes. I know gardeners who actually start boiling the water before they start picking the corn.
I don't grow sweet corn, but I find it exciting to stop at a local farm stand to buy a dozen ears of corn that I know were growing on the stalks earlier that day. Sweet corn straight out of the garden or the field is a tasty treat and an incredible value. One medium-size ear of corn has about 75 calories and just 1 gram of fat. And sweet corn is a good source of carbohydrates and food energy, as well as vitamin A, minerals and protein. Its a good source of dietary fiber, too.
Most growers plant corn for a successional harvest, either by planting several varieties, each requiring a different number of days until harvest, or by planting over several weeks, rather than all at once, allowing one planting after another to finish as the next becomes ready for harvest.
When buying corn locally, I look for husks that are firm, fresh and green, and tassels that are pale, silky, and showing just a little bit of brown. If the ears are cool to the touch, the corn is most likely fresh. A few worms in the silk are not necessarily a turn off, either. As my mom used to say, "They know which ears are the sweetest."
Besides being eaten as corn on the cob, cooked sweet corn can be added to cornbread and corn muffins for unsurpassed flavor and texture. And the kernels can be creamed or used in relishes, soups and chowders, fritters, succotash and pudding. Corn can also be fermented to make bourbon whiskey.
Corn is the largest and perhaps the single most important crop produced in the United States today. Worldwide, it is second in production only to rice. American farmers plant more than 95 million acres and harvest well over 10 billion bushels of corn annually. People consume only a small percentage of that crop.
Nearly two thirds of the harvest is field or "dent" corn, used for feeding animals. Some of it is dried and ground into meal. Even more is processed to make cornstarch, corn oil, and corn sweeteners such as syrup, dextrose and fructose, commonly used in the production of jams and jellies, condiments, candies, beverages and other value-added products. About one quarter of the corn harvest is exported.
Non-food byproducts of corn include paints, dyes, and an elastic gum that can be used in place of rubber. Corn cellulose is used in the manufacturing of pressboard and insulating materials. It can be used in making windshield washer fluid, calcium magnesium acetate road de-icer, and other biodegradable cornstarch products. Corn is also a valuable renewable energy resource used in making ethanol fuel.
Most people don't realize that corn is actually a type of grass or, more precisely, a member of the grass family of plants. It does not exist in the wild. It was created and has been perpetuated and improved for centuries. In fact, corn could very well be mankind's single most domesticated field crop.
Although there is debate about the exact time and place of its origin, it is generally accepted that corn, as we know it today, would not exist had it not been for the efforts of ancient Native American horticulturists. Farmer-scientists of Mayan, Aztec, Incan or another, lesser-known Central or South American civilization using determined cultivation techniques, purposefully invented, developed and produced corn from a wild grass called teosinte.
Sometime between 5000 BC and 8000 BC, these ingenious agriculturalists were able to transform teosinte from a wild grass that produced only a few small, individual seeds into plants that formed small husk-covered ears with rows of large kernels. In order to increase their yields, they then worked methodically to enhance their cultivated food crop by increasing the size and length of those ears.
Eventually, aboriginal civilizations across the American continent came to plant, grow and process corn; or maize. They used dried, fully mature kernels to make flour and popcorn. The kernels that did not fully mature were eaten fresh. They may have also chewed the leaves for both the flavor and the sugar.
When he returned to Europe from what he believed was the West Indies, Christopher Columbus brought corn with him as a gift for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. It wasn't long before all of Europe was introduced to the new grain.
While they were learning about beans, squash, melons, tobacco and other indigenous American crops, (all of which quickly found their way to Europe before being introduced to civilizations in other parts of the world) the European colonists took up Native American maize agriculture as their own.
Modern hybrid sweet corn is the result of centuries of effort and experimentation. Every variety of hybrid seed is the result of a controlled crossing of two specially developed parent varieties. Scientists and corn breeders continue to work diligently to develop high-productivity technology and high-yielding, superior quality hybrid corn varieties that provide more stable yearly production, greater uniformity in maturity, resistance to lodging, insects, disease and herbicide, and that make more efficient use of applied fertilizer. These improvements have helped make large-scale mechanization both practical and profitable. Today, nearly one hundred percent of the sweet corn grown in this country for canning is hybrid corn.