Say you were to stroll through a quintessential American landscape one summer morning, looking across vast fields of shimmering, swaying cornstalks a dozen feet tall. Might you be tempted to sneak down into a row and swipe an ear so that you could sink your teeth into my sweet, juicy kernels right then and there?
If so, I’d almost certainly disappoint you. The bitter truth is that less than 1 percent of what’s grown in America is sweet corn. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, biting into me fresh from the field would be like biting into a raw potato. Welcome to my world—our world—dominated by tough, inedible field corn.
And I do mean my world. Even with minimal contribution from the buttery kernels that you savor come summertime, I am by far the nation’s biggest crop. Chemists have learned how to turn the starch, fiber, oils, and proteins in field corn into industrial products ranging from ethanol and plastic to high-fructose corn syrup. I am used in engine fuel, farm-animal food, shampoo, antibiotics, shoe polish, wallpaper, and aspirin. My field version has thrived as actual food, too; cornmeal is the foundation of your polenta, grits, corn bread, corn chips, hush puppies, tamales, and more. Put my uses together, and 4,000 items in your supermarket are made, in part, from me.
In the beginning, I wasn’t recognizable as corn at all. My ancestor, teosinte, is a wild Mexican grass with seeds so small, hard, and inedible that you couldn’t possibly imagine they’d become the kernels of today. In 1500 BC or so, innovative Mesoamericans boiled me with limestone and ash. That may not sound appetizing, but this nixtamalized corn, as it came to be called, was ground more easily into dough. It also had a whole new flavor, and when cooked into tortillas, it gave us one of the world’s greatest culinary gifts—tacos.
Most important, the addition of lime and ash helped radically increase my digestibility and nutritional value by unlocking two of my key amino acids, which allowed whole populations to sustain themselves on me alone. (Not everyone got the biology lesson at first: The poor souls who transported me to Europe without the limestone trick developed a nasty amino acid deficiency called pellagra, which causes light sensitivity, skin lesions, insomnia, and a bloodless complexion. It was during an 18th century pellagra outbreak that vampire myths got their start. That’s right—you can likely thank me for Dracula.)
I emerged a modern success story: a vegetable that also qualifies as a seed, a fruit, a grain, and a starch—clearly the planet’s most credentialed plant. I’m even a great source of heart-healthy fiber, as well as a modest array of vitamins (such as A) and minerals (such as magnesium).
None of that matters a whit by summer when you can finally enjoy my essential version tender off the cob, glistening with butter and sprinkled with salt. The key word here is summer. Sweet corn is a seasonal crop with a short shelf life; my sweetness declines precipitously the moment I’m picked, as my sugars start converting to complex starches. Hence the cookbook aphorisms about getting corn lickety-split from the field into the boiling pot—or, alternatively, onto the grill (husk off for deeper charring) or into the microwave for a few minutes (husk on). Try this simple trick to cook amazing corn on the cob.
Some supermarket summer corn is sufficiently sweet, thanks to modern breeding and efficient supply chains. But I’m at my best from a farm stand or farmers’ market. Look for soft and moist silks, and avoid kernels that are overswollen or bulbous, an indication I was picked too late and am exiting the milky phase, when I taste best. Similarly, if an ear feels light and skinny, I wasn’t yet ready to be picked. And when the summer winds down, buying me from the frozen aisle is a fine option. I’ve retained my sweetness, having been put in cryostorage shortly after being harvested.
As if stacks of corn on the grill and the million other things I’m used for weren’t enough, I can also be exploded into a fluffy white snack—popcorn! And, you have no excuse: popcorn is actually pretty healthy. I know, I know, I am a wonder of form and function. But having taken 9,000 years to go from a meager grass to domesticated goddess, I retain an Achilles’ heel that makes me especially grateful for that varied use: Without humans to spread my seed, I’d vanish from the face of the earth. In other words, I need you and you need me. How about we keep it that way?
Succotash from summer corn
In a large Dutch oven or pot, melt 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add 1 diced medium yellow onion and stir until beginning to soften but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add 4 cups (about 5 ears) of corn kernels (frozen will work, too), the diced flesh of 1 large red bell pepper, and 1 pound diced zucchini and/or yellow summer squash. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes, then add 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves. Add 2 cups frozen lima beans along with 1/2 cup water (to moisten) and cook until beans are tender and a buttery glaze coats everything, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.