Pink Popcorn Anyone
When we think of corn, most of us think of succulent sweet corn or, conversely, harsh woody feed corn purchased by mistake. But there is also baby corn, ornamental corn, roasting corn, old-fashioned pipe corn actually used for making pipes, and grain corn which is further divided into flint corn, dent corn, flour corn, and popcorn.
That’s a lot of corn. And Anthony Boutard is working hard to keep it that way. In Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate Boutard encourages appreciation of the traditionally grown grain corn which so many societies were built on, and explains why growing heritage varieties is important. He explains that corn, a once indispensible food source, is being turned into “an industrial chemical kit.” Hybrids are named after the companies that produce them, or after their products, such as the appalling and unapologetic “Roundup Ready.” Some genetically modified corn is not even approved for human consumption. Instead, it is used to make alcohol, sugar, starch, oil, and various chemicals employed in food processing, as well as to fatten livestock. Sounds like humans end up consuming non-approved corn anyway.
Heritage corn varieties come in a striking array of coloured kernels. Pink Beauty “has a pearl type kernel in various shades of pink, with a few the color of garnet,” says Boutard. There are other intriguing names and colors like Dakota Black, and Blue Miniature, and these are just some of the popcorns. Then there is Bloody Butcher... Of course, once the kernels are heated they explode into the puffy white flakes we’re all familiar with. Alas, “their beauty is only skin deep,” jokes Boutard. Other corn types come in “an exuberant range of colors” from white through orange, purple and black. My personal favourite corn name is actually not about color and is called Country Gentlemen. May I have some Country Gentlemen please?
Boutard gives enough botanical information for an accurate understanding of corn’s natural history, from its wild grass ancestor 8000 years ago to its adaptability around the world. Corn can be grown in saturated rain forests and in bone-dry deserts and is cultivated at various elevations from river bottom valleys to 10,000-foot high terraced mountainsides. It is a surprisingly complex plant. Most people don’t realize that when they’re eating the cob they are actually eating the corn’s female flower—an unusual flower to be sure, but one of the tastiest. The male flowers are the tassels at the top of each stalk which shed pollen as the sun comes up, allowing the breeze to pollinate the “silk” below which in turns grows into the cob; this is why corn is commonly planted in blocks, it is self-pollinating.
Beautiful Corn gives tips on seed selection and production to help growers produce their own heritage varieties. In the United States, The National Genetics Research Program of the agriculture department “maintains genetic repositories that hold a diversity of seeds and plants from around the world” which help with research and breeding efforts and make small amounts of seeds available to growers who wish to try new types. The book also addresses harvesting, cleaning, and preparing—including favourite recipes of the author—with interesting corn trivia scattered throughout. For example, South American blue corn, of which blue corn tortilla chips are made, stains the hands blue when it is harvested or shucked, and has been traditionally used as a dye.
Boutard (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6mguEwgUsM) is a market farmer, naturalist, and avid grower of heritage corn. He and his wife live on a 144-acre organic farm in Oregon and grind their own grain, celebrating the age-old tradition of working with hand, wood, and stone to deliver healthful and tasty food to their own table and those of others. Beautiful Corn advocates growing heritage corn varieties to enrich our own lives and to replenish and restore genetic diversity to the plant kingdom.