The secret was out.
It was 2006, and the journalist Michael Pollan had revealed that America’s “omnivorous dilemma” — the choice of what to eat — was a fraud.
As laid out in Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the entire industrial food chain, from feedlots to fast food and more than 10,000 items on supermarket shelves, boiled down to one common ingredient: corn.
The corn conspiracy cut deep, implicating farmers, corporations, and politicians in an inside job to retool the food chain. Once based on sunlight and grass, the food chain now ran on oil and corn. Subsidies, profits, and monocrop farms fueled cheap corn that was funneled into products both edible and not: chicken nuggets, beef patties, and fish fillets; soft drinks, juices, and beers; syrups, flours, and starches; colorings, leavenings, and thickeners; even diapers, charcoal, batteries, and toothpaste. Suddenly, corn was complicated.
But that didn’t mean we should stop eating it. As a whole food, corn is delicious, nutritious, and plentiful. Corn is healthy; the kernels are loaded with protein, fiber, and important nutrients like niacin, folate, and vitamin A. And corn is definitively local; after all, it’s been an American staple since before recorded history.
Together, over thousands of years, humans and corn built a symbiotic relationship. And by keeping corn simple, we can ensure its posterity. Few pleasures, after all, provide as much summery delight as a fresh ear of corn, lightly steamed, buttered, and salted.
We call it corn, but many call it maize. The grass was domesticated in Mexico more than 10,000 years ago and has been in research and development ever since. In fact, corn may be among humanity’s earliest enduring inventions.
Unlike other grains, corn is the result of distinct genetic changes due directly to human selection. Grasses such as wheat and rice have obvious wild ancestors. Nothing in the wild looks like corn. In fact, corn evolved from teosinte, a grass with short, sparsely kernelled flowers so unlike modern corn that botanists at first failed to grasp the connection.
The connection exists, but it is manmade. Human selection created small mutations to single genes with dramatic morphological changes. Female flowers (the cobs) became concentrated along the plant’s main stalk. Hard kernel shells became soft and lucent. Kernels became tightly packed into rows along each ear. And an enveloping husk grew to protect the cob.
By the time Europeans discovered the New World, corn and its inventors were already rigidly interdependent. Humans in Mesoamerica relied on corn for sustenance; corn relied on humans for propagation. (The husk, in fact, is such an effective armor that, without humans to sow its seeds, corn has no means of reproducing.) We can’t stop eating corn, and corn can’t stop feeding us.
We like to think corn is corn, but distinct varieties have kernels with unique qualities — individual seeds with their own characters. Three types of corn cover the majority of our culinary needs: dent corn, popcorn, and sweet corn. Each plays a different role.
Dent corn is the evil genius of corn proliferation, and it has nearly conquered the world. High in starch and low in sugar, dent is one of the most cultivated crops, commanding over 80 percent of American corn production. Dent is inedible without processing, but once refined, it powers everything from feedlots to fireworks. You may have never seen a whole dent kernel, but odds are you eat dent every day; it is the basis of high-fructose corn syrup. Dent corn is the ubiquitous industrial ingredient.
Popcorn is the mad scientist of kernels, packing an explosive experiment into each seed. The soft, starchy core is surrounded by a hard, high-protein endosperm, and a seed coat tough as flint. The trapped moisture, once heated, makes popcorn a ticking time bomb. Two to three minutes, and the kernel blows its lid.
Sweet corn is the supermodel. We think all corn should look like this, but less than two percent of the crop actually does. Young, pleasant sweet corn is the life of any party. Her soft seed coat can hardly contain the sugary bundle of endosperm. But she ages fast, and before long, she’s good for nothing. If you can get her while she’s young, sweet corn will be the best you’ve ever had.
Buy sweet corn fresh. The moment an ear is severed from the stalk, it releases enzymes that begin converting its sweet sugars into mealy starches. Sweet corn begins life with a four-to-one ratio of sugar to starch, but loses sugars so quickly that within three days, the ratio declines to one-to-four.
Sweet corn is best from late summer to early fall. The ear should be stout with a fresh, green husk. If the tassel has turned black or the cut end dried out, the ear is long past its prime. An open ear of corn should have tightly packed kernels, which explode with juice when punctured.
When it comes to cooking corn, first do no harm. Always remember that fresh sweet corn really needs no cooking. Of course, it also tastes delicious cooked, but if and when you cook sweet corn, make sure you have reason and purpose. Keep it simple.
It’s fashionable to be mad at maize, but it doesn’t make sense. Corn is an indelible part of the American diet. Long before corporations, politicians, industrial farms, and packaged goods, corn played a pivotal role in life on this continent. Modern excess reflects poorly on our habits, not on millennia of culinary tradition. We did this. Don’t blame the pig for how the sausage gets made.
The first rule of food is to keep it simple. At some point we lost our way. It goes beyond corn to the heart of our diets, and we look everywhere for fault except in our gut. Go back to the basics. The simplest foods are the most unforgettable: an ear of corn over hot coals, a dollop of butter, and a sprinkling of salt. What’s not to love? Corn really is a simple food. The challenge is keeping it that way.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better