Tuesday, September 15, 2015

September 15, 2015 - In Praise of Corn

I think corn has gotten a very unfair reputation in our society, much maligned and terribly misunderstood.  Yes, it’s true that a great deal of it is now genetically modified, and it’s also true that animals can be made too fat on it or it can be wastefully used to produce ethanol for cars, but the corn plant itself is a truly amazing and mystical plant that is bound inextricably to humans forever.  Now that the corn fields are ripening here in Maine, it’s a pleasure to walk by them and see the burgeoning stalks fat with ears of corn.

The King of the field.

Corn, or “maize” as it is known in many countries, is an ancient grain plant.  Native people in Central America domesticated corn in prehistoric times.  What is meant by “domesticate” is to tame it or cultivate it for human use.  Maize used to be really tiny, and each plant only bore one tiny cob.  People began selecting the better ones and growing them larger and larger until not only were the ears much larger, but each plant itself could produce at least a few cobs.

But with this “taming” of maize came a reliance of the plant on people.  Just as billions of people depend on maize for food, maize depends on people to remain king of the field.  Maize doesn’t do well without humans manually shucking and thereby releasing the seeds as well as planting them in huge fields.  Maize plants also need one another to survive.  The ear cannot fill with juicy kernels unless the tassels release a lot of pollen that lands on the silk.  If no pollen lands on the silk, or not enough pollen lands on it, the ear does not fill out with kernels.  So a large field of nothing but corn guarantees you big fat ears that are completely full with kernels.  And this requires people to selectively plant and care for the maize.

Without maize, we wouldn’t be where we are today.  Maize has fed much of the world for thousands of years, both people and animals.  The sweet corn we eat is just one variety that, while delicious, doesn’t keep well.  It’s the field corn varieties that produce hard kernels which are ground into flour and cornmeal and are also fed to animals along with the silage during the winter.  It’s a misconception to think that animals just sit there eating nothing but corn kernels.  On most family farms in Maine, the animals eat grass in the warm weather and corn and its silage along with hay in the winter.  Not every community depends on a feedlot system.

So when I bite into the sweet and juicy kernels of corn or bake bread from the cornmeal, I know that I am participating in a ritual that is thousands and thousands of years old.  I know that this plant almost single-handedly brought humans intact out of prehistoric times into the modern era.  I know that I am consuming a reliable plant and so are the animals around me, which also feed me.  Yes, I eat organic non-GMO when I can, but I do eat corn a lot and I suffer no guilt from it.  I suggest you do the same.

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