Corn Then and Now

Food and Travel, Ingredient
on September 6, 2012
Corn in Husks
Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn


As you savor an ear of fresh ripe corn, consider the other love affair between humans and corn—a codependent relationship like no other in the natural world. Without human intervention, corn would be extinct. Several thousand years ago, corn’s ancestor underwent what botanists call a “catastrophic sexual mutation” wherein its female organs moved to an enclosed ear at the center of its stalk. This peculiar arrangement produces abundant kernels, but prevents self-seeding—it takes an opposable thumb to pluck the seeds and plant them.
Native Americans became the world’s first plant breeders, developing thousands of cultivars and spreading the plant they called maize from Central Mexico to North America in the centuries before Columbus came to the New World. But if corn was dependant on man, man was equally dependent on corn—in Mexico, for example, 40 percent of the average person’s caloric intake comes directly from corn.  
When English colonists arrived in the Americas, “corn” was their generic term for cereal grain—or a grain of pretty much anything—hence “corned beef” for salted beef, and “peppercorn” for a nub of pepper. When Squanto taught Pilgrims to plant maize, they dubbed it “Indian corn,” and eventually Americans dropped the “Indian.”
Colonists may have muddled its name, but they quickly recognized its value. This single plant supplied a ready-to-eat vegetable and a long-storing grain. Kernels were made into hominy (another trick learned from natives) and dried for flour. Husks became rugs and twine, leaves became silage, cobs became fuel, and grain became whiskey.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.