Next time you pick up an ear of corn, skip over the usual yellow cobs and go for the variously colored heirloom kind instead. Not only do they offer distinct flavors that are different from your usual run-of-the-mill kernels, but these varietals come with a rich history on both American continents. “Corn became such a part of our diet and it’s still part of how America survives,” says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, MO. “America never would have been the same without corn. It’s the same as rice is to Asia.” On that note, here are eight things that make heirloom corn so interesting:
1. There are dozens of heirloom corns available
Though we have lost many of the native varieties of corn, there are still quite a few you can find in seed shops. They have funky names, too, like Bloody Butcher, Shaman’s Blue Popcorn and Country Gentleman. Still, according to Gettle, they are disappearing fast. “We are probably at an all-time low right now,” he says. “But we still have about 200-plus varietals [in the United States].” Gettle sells 21 types through his company. But there are others, he says. Some remain with collectors. Others reside with Native American peoples who have kept indigenous varietals pure of genetic engineering. As for corn across the world, Gettle says it’s impossible to know how many varieties there are. “You could spend your lifetime looking for corns and never find all the varietals because you would have to contact every tribe and every family in the world.”
2. The existence of heirloom corn is fragile
A century ago, there was more heirloom corn on the market than there is today, a direct correlation to current farming practices. “A lot of our corn variety got contaminated with genetically modified corns and people switching to hybrids in the 1950s,” says Gettle, adding that inclement weather also has had a toll on heirlooms. “All it takes is farmers not being able to garden or having a few bad years and the corns can disappear.”
3. Heirloom corn comes in a rainbow of colors
Forget the yellow corn you are familiar with: heirloom corn can come in all sorts of colors, including red, white, blue, black, pink and green. In fact, one of Gettle’s favorite varieties is the Oaxacan Green, which shines in shades of emerald. Bronze-Orange is, well, a rusty orange color. Black Mexican has a dark grey and purple hue. Country Gentleman sweet corn is milky white. And, the aptly named Black Incan looks very inky indeed. If you want a corncob with multi colors, try Glass Gem. Instead of being a single hue, each ear features kernels of lime green, ruby red, white, yellow, light blue and pink.
4. Heirloom corn saved early American settlers’ asses
Though the pilgrims brought wheat, rye and barley with them from overseas, it was the local corn that ultimately became their food source. They were taught how to grow this important crop by Squanto, also called Tisquantum, an English-speaking native from the Pawtuxet tribe. Not only did the settlers find the kernels nourishing, but the cobs and stalks also worked as feed for their livestock. It’s safe to say that if corn hadn’t come into the picture, they would have starved over the winter.
5. There are six types of kernels
Yes, just as all corn isn’t popcorn, other types of corn have their own purpose. With that, the six varieties of kernels you find are: flint, flour, dent, pop, sweet and waxy. Flint is used to make cornmeal and livestock feed — it’s also what is known as “Indian” corn. Flour is made up of soft starch and gets used as corn flour. Hard-shelled dent corn is the most widely grown type in the States, and gets used for oils, syrups, grits, flours, bio-fuel and animal feed. Then you have pop, a.k.a. popcorn, and waxy corn, which was found in China in the early 1900s and has a texture similar to glutinous rice. Finally, there’s good ol’ sweet corn, the type we commonly eat fresh, frozen or canned.
6. Not all corn is popcorn
A food as classic as popcorn actually dates back even earlier than movie theaters and carnivals, as it has been around for thousands of years. But what makes it special? Well, the reason it works as “pop” corn is due to the content of horny starch. (Yes, there is such a thing.) When heated, this starch expands and in turn, the kernel violently bursts open to reveal the fluffy, tasty interior. It’s akin to other hard, moisture-sealed hulls of grains including amaranth grains, quinoa and millet. This type of corn comes in two kernel shapes, pearl and rice. But, unfortunately for other kernels, only the pop variety literally pops.
7. Corn has two sisters
Okay, not an actual sister, but according to Native American myth, corn (or maize) is one of the crops that make up the “three sisters.” The other two sisters are climbing beans and squash, and together the trio makes a special planting method used to produce a rich garden. The supposed sisterhood works because of the way the mounds are planted next to each other. This way, the crops aid their “sisters.” For example, the corn gives the beans “poles” to climb on, and squash covers the dirt, blocking out sun and preventing weeds from taking over. The result is a plot that not only nourishes the people, but also proves good for the land as it helps with soil fertility.
8. Peru has giant heirloom corn
Have you ever seen a kernel the size of a quarter? If you have been to Peru, you probably have, though it usually is under the name choclo, also called Peruvian or Cusco corn. You can also get Yuracklallhua, the largest known corn that takes twice as long to grow and that has stalks towering at more than 10 feet high. Originally grown in the Andes Mountains, it is rich in proteins, starch and sugars. As for taste, it tends to be slightly chewy and toothsome, a real meal (or two) on just one cob. Overall, it’s not surprising these ancient peoples have a corn this mighty — the produce is a staple in the Peruvian diet, as it has been since at least 1,200 BC.
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