When a farmer says corn, no doubt the first thing that comes into your head is sweet corn, dripping with butter, maybe hot off the grill. I know that’s what I think of. But corn has a long and fascinating history. Corn is thought to have been domesticated at least 7,000 years ago, somewhere in central Mexico, from a wild grass called Teosinte. Modern day corn is a plant that literally can not survive without human input, as it needs to be planted and harvested by us in order to continue. It is (or was) a crop with huge genetic diversity. The US Department of Agriculture’s Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa holds 19,780 different samples or “accessions” of corn from around the world.
When I first had room to really garden, living in Bayfield Colorado, I could not wait to grow sweet corn. And I failed, repeatedly. Bayfield is almost 7,000 feet. It’s hard to grow sweet corn at that elevation. Plus, I had a banner population of earwigs, and the earwigs would eat the corn silks before they had a chance to be pollinated. So even growing a short season Hopi flour corn bred for high elevation was difficult. So, I bought my box of Olathe Colorado sweet corn (from about 140 miles away) every year and gave up on trying to grow it myself.
Once I got to Walla Walla, I couldn’t wait to plant sweet corn. And I did, for the first few years we were here. I researched the different sweet corn hybrids (su, se, sh2, sy, supersweet) and determined which ones I wanted to try, based on reputation and how long they would hold both on the plant and in the fridge. (Open pollinated sweet corn varieties tend to go from sweet to starchy very very quickly – like between the walk from the field to the pot of boiling water. This is one instance where a hybrid is actually a worthy improvement).
I had good success with Honey Select (a yellow sy) and Providence (a bycolor sy). But what I came to realize is that its difficult to grow sweet corn organically here. Corn earworms, the caterpillar phase of the Helicoverpa zea moth, are abundant. They can be controlled with an organic spray (Bacillus thuringiensis), but you need to spray at least weekly, and I’m generally too busy to keep up with that routine. So I end up with corn with lovely caterpillars munching away at the top kernels. I’m not personally all that squeamish about them. I pick them out, feed them to the chickens, break off the damaged portion, and continue with cooking.
But you can’t easily sell corn with earworm damage. My customers aren’t as easy going about bugs in their food as I am. I thought about just growing enough for us, but for corn to pollinate well, you really need a decent sized block of plants. More than we wanted for our fresh and frozen needs. Plus, sweet corn is a nutrition pig (hybrid corn has one of the highest fertilizer needs of any crop). So I decided to just buy my sweet corn when it was abundant at market and not grow it myself.
All that said, a few years ago, I bought and read Carol Deppe’s book “The Resilient Gardener”. In it, she talks a lot about corn. And Carol has a PhD in genetics from Harvard, and has been breeding her own crops for a very long time. She knows a LOT about corn. She also has celiac disease, which means she relies heavily on corn in her diet, since she can’t tolerate gluten. Not just sweet corn, but flour and flint corn for breads and cakes and polenta.
I became intrigued by the varieties Carol had bred herself. (Her chapter on corn in the Resilient Gardener is fascinating, and an excellent read – I highly recommend it). One was a parching corn, which is sort of like a pop corn, in that it can be heated in a skillet or microwave until it bursts, but it doesn’t expand the way popcorn does, and is meant to be cooked without oil.
One was a flour variety where each cob (all the kernels on that cob) was a different color, and each color had a different flavor. So you could grow one variety of corn, and make many different flavored cornbreads.
Another was similar, in that each ear was a different color, but it was a flint corn, made for grinding for use as a polenta (aka grits). It is unusual in that it is a quick cooking polenta corn. Most polenta can take 45 minutes on the stove, plus baking, to finish cooking. This one cooks in seven minutes!
I also still had some old seed from the white Hopi Vadido flour corn that I had last grown out in Colorado almost 10 years ago. So this year, I decided to grow flour and flint corns instead of sweet corn.
What is the difference between a flour and a flint corn? The endosperm baby. The endosperm is the part of the seed that will feed the baby embryo (the germ) when the plant is first germinating. It’s the stored food for the plant, when it is first starting out. It’s part of what makes corn such a good energy source for us as well.
In flour corn, the endosperm is almost entirely soft and, well, floury. It’s easy to grind into a very soft fine flour. In flint corn, the endosperm has a harder layer that can make the kernels appear glassy on the cob, and can make grinding the corn into a very fine flour almost impossible. (You can see beautiful pictures of “Glass Gem” flint corn, bred by Carl Barnes, here.) Dent corn, also known as field corn, which is what is commonly grown all over the United States, primarily as feed for livestock, is a hybrid between flint and flour corn. The soft endosperm reaches up through the kernel to the top, but is surrounded by a harder endosperm layer. When the corn dries, the softer endosperm shrinks more, and so the dried kernels have a distinct “dent” in them. All of this is quite easy to see if you cut some kernels of different types in half.
Traditionally, Native Americans in the northeast part of the US grew flint corns (yup, the pilgrims at the first thanksgiving were likely eating flint corn). They tend to do better in colder or more rainy climates. Native Americans in the Southwest and Mexico grew flour corns. Sweet corn and popcorn are both actually types of flint corn. But other than those two, almost no flint corn is grown in the United States commercially any more. It is still commonly grown in Central and South America.
According to Deppe’s research, and her own experimentation, flint corns are best when used in boiled applications. They often make exceptional polenta or johnnycake (a flatbread similar to a pancake). Flour corns often taste best in baked applications (ie cornbread). And those gorgeous ears of “Indian Corn” such as Painted Mountain? Well, each kernel has a different flavor. So when you grind them all together you end up with a bit of a muddied mess. Yes, they may be pretty to look at, but maybe not so much for eating.
So this year I grew Magic Manna Four Corn, Parcing Manna Flour Corn, my Hopi Vadido flour corn, and Cascade Ruby-Gold Flint Corn. I didn’t get a huge crop, as my soil fertilization was lower than it should have been, especially on the Ruby-Gold flint, which I grew on a different part of the property (so it didn’t cross pollinate with the flour varieties), and which hadn’t received any supplemental fertilization other than a handful of commercial organic fertilizer at the beginning of the season. The Hopi corn germinated beautifully, which completely surprised me. While it had been stored refrigerated for a lot of its life, it was still about 10 years old.
Interestingly, now that I really understood the differences between flint and flour corns, and started cutting open seed kernels to verify, I realized that the Vadido was actually a flour corn with some flint characteristics (which, looking up old descriptions, is acknowledged – I notice it is no longer offered to the general public by Native Seed/Search and I kind of wonder if this is why). When I started husking the ears, I could immediately see that some ears were entirely flint, some were entirely flour, some were a mix of the two, and some were decidedly dent (which could be a cross from when I planted it in Colorado. While I didn’t grow any other corn at the same time, corn can cross pollinate from other corn a mile or more away. I even had a few yellow kernels show up, a dead give away that some alternative genetics snuck into the mix).
I immediately shelled two ears of the flint Vadido and made a polenta out of them. I’ve never been a huge fan of polenta. It’s always just been kind of meh to me, a starchy bland base on which to eat whatever the main course was. But I recently had an excellent polenta as a base for a duck breast at Public House 124 here in Walla Walla, and so had been craving more. I made the recipe based on one found on the Cooks Illustrated website (I’ve been a member for years) for creamy polenta, not realizing that it was a cook in the pan, then bake in the oven recipe, while still maintaining a creamy texture – and so I added WAY too much liquid. (1 1/2 cups of ground corn, a total of 9 1/2 cups liquid). But in spite of that, the polenta was fantastic. As in, I could NOT stop eating it. (I had never made polenta out of this corn when I grew it before. I always used it in corn bread instead). I had polenta for breakfast, with a fried egg, multiple times last week, in addition to using it as a base for a lamb Osso Buco.
I can’t wait to try the flour corns in corn bread.
Here are some additional pictures. Yes, I ran around with a utility knife cutting every corn kernel I could find in half for a couple of days there.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2016, where we now want to plant an entire field of polenta corn and sell it to local restaurants, but given that we don’t own a tractor, we’ll probably just keep growing it for ourselves!