Mike Madison is the author of Blithe Tomato, from which these blog posts are excerpted. He is a farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley.

Eat bitterness

The supersweet gene

December 12, 2007

We don’t grow sweet corn on our farm — it takes too much water, and it’s a finicky crop, and in the past when we’ve grown it we’ve been inattentive and failed to harvest it at the critical moment. So we leave corn-growing to the specialists, and when we want corn we buy it, or barter for it.

This year we tried the varieties of sweet corn available at the farmers’ market — So Sweet, Milk ’n Honey, Even Sweeter, Candy Store, and Sweet Heart. All of these newer varieties have the sh-2 (supersweet) gene, which causes the kernels to develop an extremely high sugar content. To me, they taste too much like candy, and not enough like corn.

I asked one of the old farmers why he was growing these instead of the classic varieties like Golden Bantam and Trucker’s Delight. “Oh, that’s what everybody wants nowadays,” he said. Not everybody. I guess if I want corn that tastes like corn, I’ll have to grow it myself.

The supersweet gene isn’t showing up just in corn. There are supersweet varieties of carrots and beets, grapes and apples. When sugar overpowers flavor, it becomes difficult, with your eyes closed, to tell a Red Flame grape from a Fuji apple from a Lutz beet from a Sugar Baby carrot; all of them are crunchy sugar. And as the tools of biotechnology are put to work, we can expect that extra sugar will soon appear in all sorts of unlikely places — peanuts? tomatoes? onions?

How sweet is your corn?

I was chatting with the checkout girl in the supermarket one day while she rang up my groceries, and I asked her what was the most popular item in the store. Cap’n Crunch cereal. Sixty percent sugar and crunchy. I wonder if fruit and vegetable breeding isn’t sloping downward toward some lowest common denominator of human taste. Cap’n Crunch. Instant gratification for a spoiled child.

A traditional Chinese curse translates as “Eat bitterness.” To a child, this is indeed a curse, but to an adult, to eat bitterness is not such a bad destiny. I think of Turkish coffee, escarole, unsweetened chocolate, wild almonds, quinine, winter melon, endives. Bitterness is complex and interesting; it lingers on the palate, and like music in a minor key, it sets a mood of contemplation and regret. The truly terrible curse, which I sometimes suspect is being aimed at all of us, is “Eat sweetness.”

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by Mia on Dec 12, 2007 at 2:18 PM PST

It seems very true. Everything is geared towards sweet. I shop at my local co-op since they tend to favor the older crops and buy local. I try to grow as much of my own as I can. I like the bitter. I don’t think I am strange for that.

2. by eamonm on Dec 12, 2007 at 10:52 PM PST

I’ve found myself eating less corn over the years. The flavor seems to have disappeared. I keep hoping that at least one farmer will back off the supersweet corn and go back to the older varieties.

3. by Farmer de Ville on Dec 14, 2007 at 6:04 AM PST

Very nice. This captures a sentiment I’ve had for many years. When I was in the wine business my friends and I put it like this: In a world that is pushing FLAVOR, let’s look for things that have a real CHARACTER. Sugar at the expense of character - I say no way...

4. by Expat Chef on Dec 14, 2007 at 7:11 AM PST

Absolutely. Makes me proud my 2yo likes dark chocolate and kale chips. Captain Crunch is awful. I always try to buy a wide variety of produce at the farmers market, especially the heirloom varieties to help encourage farmers to grow these wonderful crops. Having a limited palate is the biggest curse.

5. by Holly on Dec 18, 2007 at 1:59 PM PST

What they said. I feel like a broken record sometimes, repeating “too sweet! too sweet!” every time I’m offered food by well-meaning friends and family, but it’s gotten to the point where my tongue feels creepy just thinking about sugar. What about sour grapes and blood oranges, musk strawberries and dark rye bread?

6. by Chiot's Run on Oct 11, 2011 at 3:42 AM PDT

This is so true, I like corn less and less and it seems most people I eat it with think I’m crazy. I don’t eat sugar hardly at all in my other food, so eating corn nowadays is like eating spoonfuls of sugar. I cannot find anyone locally growing the old fashioned corn, so, now that I have more garden space, I’ll be growing my own!

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