Corn, Traditional Food for Real People
How Corny Can You Get in a Midwestern Summer? Pretty Darn Corny!
Corn is a traditional American food, much more entrenched in our culture than most of us can believe.
In fact, nobody really knows how long corn has been a people food, or how we got so addicted to corn
Best Guesstimates say that corn originated in South America 5 – 10,000 years ago. From there it traveled to Central America and Mexico, then North along the Mississipi River and what is now California, eventually spreading to Europe and Asia.
So corn is one of the few good things we can blame on Columbus.
Corn has been a staple of the American diet since the mound building civilization which thrived along the Mississipi River over 3000 years ago. Native people used corn husks to make all kinds of things from clothing to toys.
The corn itself was dried and laboriously pounded into corn meal all day everyday by women, and made into flat bread and porridge. Those evolved to become today’s tortillas, grits and corn chips. Life has also gotten better for women since other ways were invented to make cornmeal.
These days corn is the most commonly grown food crop in the world, with China and the US leading the way. In the mid-western United States, field corn is grown everywhere to feed hogs raised on CAFOs. Suffering hogs that nobody really needs to eat.
Corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup, found in most processed foods and reputed to be bad for you. Field corn has many other industrial uses including ethanol, cosmetics, fabrics, starch, glue, and medicines, most of which are also bad for you.
What I think of as corn is fresh sweet corn on the cob that we buy locally during July, August and September. It is indisputably good for you. Nothing is sweeter than fresh sweet corn, the fresher the better. I could eat it every day.
Fresh sweet corn becomes frozen corn which most of us have in the freezer and which finds its way into so many dishes.
There are hundreds of kinds of sweet corn, most of them heirloom varieties seldom seen outside of organic gardens. Most of the sweet corn we buy is a few different commercial variations on white, yellow, and yellow & white. Blue corn is used to make tortilla chips – the best tortilla chips, in my view.
Cooking with Corn:
Is there anything you can’t make with corn? I don’t think so.
Fresh corn on the cob can be boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled or microwaved, with or without the husks, sometimes wrapped in foil. It’s usually eaten with butter and/or salt, sometimes with other additions like lime or chile pepper. Purists swear it’s best with nothing at all.
Fresh or frozen corn kernels can be added to breads, muffins, pancakes, salads, soups, salsa and stews, or eaten as a veggie side – probably the most common way to eat it, straight-up or mixed with other veggies. Then there’s canned creamed corn – one of my childhood faves.
We love fresh corn kernels in simple corn chowder or quinoa corn chowder, black bean salad rolled up in a tortilla, and quinoa corn black bean salad as a meal in a bowl for several meals running during the summer.
Pop corn is the fluffy white food loved in every American household and movie theater. Popping corn comes from a variety known as flint corn. Again, there are many heirloom varieties, which some people grow and dry to make their own popping corn. Most of us buy the few commercial varieties sold in stores, and most of us microwave it in pre-flavored packages.
An inexpensive electric air popper works wonderfully and quickly for popcorn. Then you can add your own flavorings and control the amount of salt & fat. You can also pop corn in a corn popper basket on a grill or gas stove.
Old fashioned people pop corn in a cast iron pan on the wood stove, adding a bit of oil to the pan first. They swear that’s the only way to eat it. Personally I prefer the air popper method, with nutritional yeast added. To each his own popcorn!
Dried corn is ground into corn meal or flour, and used to make corn tortillas or tacos, corn bread, polenta, or grits. We add cornmeal as a thickener and binder to tofu burgers, and we love polenta or cornbread with soups and stews in the winter, or with salsa in the summer.
Mexico has had corn for a much longer time, and it’s even more of a staple there, so traditional Mexican food is pretty creative with corn. It’s not all about tortillas.
Mexican corn casserole is something I’d like to try making – it looks a bit like polenta with additions. I’d veganize this recipe from Debbi Does Dinner and use fresh or frozen rather than canned corn.
I’ve had tamales in restaurants, but would like to try a traditional version using the tips on Gourmet Sleuth.
I’m addicted to oatmeal, and I’ve never eaten corn grits for breakfast. But it’s on the list to try. Some people have told me grits are awful, but I refuse to believe that anything so many people eat could be bad. After all, some people don’t like oatmeal, which just boggles my mind.
I suspect that as with most foods, the less processed the grits the better. I’m sure it’s like the difference between instant oatmeal from a packet, and steel cut oats. True Grits agrees, and tells you all you’ll ever need to know about cooking grits, with maybe a bunch of stuff you didn’t want to know, and lotsa laughs.
GMO vs Non-GMO Corn:
Most of the field corn grown in the US is genetically modified. That’s the corn fed to animals, used to make corn starch & high fructose corn syrup (in most processed foods) and other industrial products.
Organically grown corn is not genetically modified, and you can buy organic corn starch to use in baking. GMO corn may sneak into some processed food products that are labelled as organic, because it’s legal to call a food organic if it uses mostly organic ingredients, which may or may not include organic corn starch.
Until recently, sweet corn has not been genetically modified. Now Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn has been approved and will be sold in Walmart stores starting next year. Whole Foods and General Mills have said no to GMO sweet corn, but I don’t know about other big food companies.
Since GMO labeling isn’t required in the United States or Canada, the only way to be sure that you are eating non-GMO corn is to buy certified organic, or to believe your local growers or stores when they say it’s organic or non-gmo. Or to grow your own, although corn is a space-gobbling, pest-attracting crop. Personally, I’d rather grow kale and buy my sweet corn at the farmers market – after I’ve made the farmer swear on the bible it’s organic and non-gmo.
Corn and Gluten:
Corn is a gluten free food, which is wonderful for celiacs and other gluten sensitive people.
According to an article on About.com, “corn contains a substance known as ‘corn gluten,’ which isn’t the same gluten that bothers people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity”.
The catch is that as with gluten-free oats, corn may be processed in plants which also process glutenous grains such as wheat. I haven’t found that to be a problem with either corn or oats, but celiacs need to be more careful about possible gluten contamination. Always look for the gluten free label.
Foods which are labelled as corn, but also contain wheat, such as corn tortillas, can also be a problem for the gluten-intolerant, who must always block grocery aisles reading all the labels on all the food.
I’m one of them. Just go around me or clear your throat loudly if you want to get your head in the freezer too.
Judith Kingsbury, Savvy Vegetarian