The good old days seemed to have had snowier winters, greener grass, and more toothsome apples. One thing those good old days definitely did not have was sweeter sweet corn.
Can we consider 5000 years ago to be the good old days? That’s the earliest find of domesticated corn, if you can call an ear with a cob the size of a pencil eraser domesticated. That ear, unearthed by an archeologist in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico, was not only small, but probably was also not sweet.
Earliest corns were popped or ground into meal. Such was the beginning of centuries and centuries of corn breeding by native Americans. By the time Columbus set foot in the New World, hundreds of varieties of corn had been developed in all today’s classes of corn: pop, dent, flint, flour, and sweet.
In modern times, the Hudson Valley has for many decades been a major sweet corn producer. The hot, sunny days and cool nights help the plants accumulate sugars.
At one time there were nearly 6000 acres in the Rondout Valley planted in sweet corn, and ten large sweet corn operations shipping their products countrywide. Production here has been cut back over the years, but there’s still plenty of local farms at which to buy fresh sweet corn.
Sweet corn is also not at all difficult to grow in a backyard garden. To be able to sink my teeth into fresh, sweet corn nearly every day from early August until the first frost, I make four plantings each growing season. The first planting goes in right about the average time of the last spring frost (May 15th in my garden), with subsequent plantings every couple of weeks.
The main reason I choose to grow my own is because I’m partial to a particular variety — Golden Bantam, which was the standard of excellence in sweet corn a hundred years ago. I like its rich, corny flavor and texture that lets you know you’re really biting into something.
It’s not to everyone’s liking. But that’s a reason to grow your own. You grow what you find most toothsome.
The gene responsible for making sweet corn sweet, the so-called “sugary” gene, is a common mutation that undoubtedly appeared even in prehistoric plantings in Mexico. This gene brings the sugar level of corn up to ten percent (in the dried kernel). Breeders estimate that one plant in every 17 acres of non-sweet corn will have this gene.
The first written record of sweet corn dates back to 1779. That record is of an ear of sweet, papoon corn nabbed by a white settler, Richard Bagnal, from an Indian cornfield along the Susquehanna River in western New York.
The sugars in traditional sweet corns start changing to bland starch as soon as the ear is picked. For best eating, the recommendation has been to get a pot of water boiling on the stove before you went out to pick the corn. Mark Twain went so far as to recommend bringing the pot of boiling water out to the garden.
A few decades ago, plant breeders found new genes that shot the sugar content of sweet corn sky-high. Two genes are responsible for these changes. The first gene, called the «shrunken-2» gene because of the way the dried kernels shrivel up, pushes the sugar level in corn up to a whopping thirty-seven percent. Not only that, but even two days after picking that corn still has 29 percent sugar.
The variety Illini Xtra Sweet was the first of the appropriately named supersweet sweet corns. Other varieties with this gene are Early Xtra Sweet, Starstruck, and How Sweet It Is.
The second gene responsible for sweeter sweet corn is the sugar- enhanced gene, which is effective only in combination with the sugary gene of regular sweet corn varieties. The combination of the two genes results in varying degrees of sweetness.
There’s little need to scurry to the kitchen with sugar-enhanced varieties, because they retain their sweetness for a long time. Kandy Korn EH, Pearls ‘n’ Gold EH, Silverado, and Snow Queen EH are varieties with the sugar-enhanced gene.
Sweet corn from 1895
Sweet corn, whether plain sweet or supersweet, is abundant this time of year — perhaps more than you can eat boiled, roasted in its husk, or raw (try it, it’s good). If you need some more uses for sweet corn, why not transport yourself back in time and try one of these recipes, both quoted directly from the 1895 edition of Dr. A.W. Chase’s Receipt [sic] Book and Household Physician?:
“Corn Vinegar. — Cut off the cob a pint of corn, then take one pint of brown sugar or molasses to onr gallon of rain water; add the corn, put into a jar, cover with a cloth, set in the sun, and in three weeks you will have good vinegar.”
“Green Corn Soup. — Cut the corn from a dozen good-sized ears (real sweet corn is the best in all cases), lay the cobs closely in a kettle and cover with water — not less than three pints, or two quarts if needed — and boil half an hour; then take out the cobs and cook the corn in the same water till tender. Now add a pint of rich, sweet milk, if you have it, and boil a few minutes longer; season with salt and pepper, and if no milk beat two eggs and stir in, and continue to stir two or three minutes just as ready to serve. It will be found delicious, if nicely done.”
For the second recipe, I recommend using an old-fashioned variety of corn, or else the soup will taste like a dessert. Dr. Chase could not have realized just how sweet sweet corn could be when he called for “real sweet corn”!
New Paltz writer Lee Reich, PhD, (www.leereich.com) is a garden consultant specializing in fruit, vegetable, and nut growing, including using these plants as ornamentals. He also does consulting and hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden, and webinars. Visit his farmden at http://www.leereich.com/blog