From American Indians, the settlers
learned to make corn into hominy, and then ate it lke a cereal. They
ground it into meal and then even finer into flour. They made puddings
and breads from it as well as soups, stews, and mashes.
In fact corn was a basic all-purpose crop. Not only did it feed the
colonists but it nourished their animals, filled their mattresses,
insulated their cabins and warmed their hearths.
When the colonists finally became acclimated to this strange,
thoroughly American grain, corn was no longer new in the Old Century.
It had already been carried home by the great explorers, first to
Spain, then to the rest of Europe. Later the Portuguese took it with
them on their routes to Asia, as well as Africa, where it is known as
mealies. Until recently in Europe, however, this foreign grain was
thought fit only to feed to animals and the American habit of eating it
right off the cob gave credence to the image of the American as
barbarian. Once it was accepted as food for humans, it was often used
cold in salads and relishes or ground into meal and boiled like polenta
in Italy or mamaliga in Romania, to be sauced and enhanced by adding
butter, cheese, tomatoes and other savory combinations.
It is still difficult in Europe to find corn that is fresh enough to
eat off the cob, and more than once I have taken packets of various
sweet corn seeds to my European friends who developed a taste fro corn
on the cob while in America and who longed to grow it in their own
This very ancient grain was known in virtually every part of the New
World. In some areas of what is now Central and South America, it was
the only cultivated grain crop. While hybrids were not unknown, the
original corn varieties grown were much coarser than the sweet corn we
love. It was much more like the field corn we feed to animals and
Today, there are many varieties of sweet corn, some white, some yellow,
and even some with both colors on the same cob. All are delicious if
they are fresh. Like many other vegetables, corn definitely is better
the shorter the time between garden or field and the plate. As soon as
the cob is picked the sugars in the kernels begin to turn to starch,
the corn begins to toughen and to lose that candy-sweet flavor we love.
If you asked old-time farmers what was the best way to cook corn, they
would tell you to build a fire in the field and not pick the corn, much
less husk it, until the water is boiling.
If you ever have the opportunity to grow your own sweet corn, put a pot
of boiling water on the stove, send the kids out to pick and husk the
ears, and drop them right into the boiling water. Remove the pot from
the heat. Cover and let stand for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on the size
of the ears. Serve it very hot with butter and salt, or brush it with a
mixture of olive oil and chopped fresh herbs. You will never be
satisfied with corn from the supermarket again.
In most places, corn is truly only a summer crop. The first of the
local crop is generally in the markets around the Fourth of July and
lasts until the end of August. In our house it is a part of almost
every menu while it lasts. Fortunately, corn can be preserved in many
ways. Frozen corn, both ears and kernels cut from the cob, is
delicious. Simply thaw it and use it as if it has been cooked. To my
way of thinking, canned corn is one of the few vegetables that are not
ruined by the canning process. I suggest draining it and rinsing to
remove some of the salt that has been added during the preserving
process, but it can be eaten as is, or heated and incorporated as is
into cooked dishes.