Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn
The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.
However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.
I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them). My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.
For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.