This Winter’s Featured Food is Corn.
Corn is a grain. It is part of the Poaceae “true grass” family, which includes wheat, rice, barley, and millet. In much of the world, corn is called maize. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays.
When Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he met its inhabitants, the Taino people. The Taino word for corn was mahiz, which Columbus documented in his diary. Columbus brought back corn when he returned to Spain, where it spread to Europe and other parts of the world. It became a staple grain for many countries.
A corn plant‘s leafy stalk produces ears which contain the grain, also called seeds or kernels. An ear commonly holds ~600 kernels. Corn grows in a variety of colors: red, yellow, green, blue, purple, white and black.
The six major varieties of corn are dent, flour, flint, popcorn, sweet, and pod.
Dent corn is made into corn meal, tortillas, and chips. It is named after the dent in its kernels, and contains mainly soft starch. Dent corn is also used to make cooking oil, syrup, fabric, paper, plastic, animal feed and ethanol fuel! Ethanol is mixed with gasoline to decrease the amount of pollutants emitted from motor vehicles.
Flour corn also contains mainly soft starch. It is primarily used to make corn flour.
Flint corn is also known as Indian calico corn, due to its colorful kernels. It is the preferred variety for alkaline soaking to make hominy, and then grind into grits. It has a hard outer layer and less soft starch than dent corn, inspiring its name. Popcorn is considered a variant of this type.
Popping corn is a variety that explodes when heated, forming fluffy pieces that are eaten as a snack. Like amaranth, quinoa and millet, popcorn has a hard hull that allows pressure to build inside its starchy interior, until it pops.
Sweet corn, as its name suggests, has a high sugar content. Unlike field corn varieties, which are harvested when the kernels are dry and mature, sweet corn is picked when still juicy. This prevents the corn from becoming tough and starchy. Sweet corn is the kind we eat on the cob.
Pod corn has kernels that are each enclosed in their own tiny husk, or pod.
Genetically engineered (GE) corn currently makes up over 90% of the corn planted in the United States. A number of concerns related to genetic engineering have been raised since their introduction.
Farmers are motivated to use GE seeds by increased financial returns. However, this profitability is strongly dependent on pest infestation levels. Research indicates that insects and weeds are developing resistance to GE crop defenses. Thus the increased profitability of GE crops is likely temporary.
Because corn is a wind-pollinated crop that can easily spread pollen between fields, production of non-GE traditional or organic corn can be contaminated with GE corn. This limits the ability to continue to grow non-GE corn in the future.
International health organizations say there are unanswered questions regarding the potential long-term impact on human health from GE foods.
While labeling GE products is not required in the United States, many companies voluntarily label their non-GE products as such. Organic standards forbid the use of genetic engineering in production.
Maize mazes are popular in many farming communities. The mazes can be cut in different designs to create a giant picture, like a mermaid or a space shuttle. The largest maize maze ever constructed was 60 acres. During the Middle Ages, an acre was the amount of land that could be ploughed in one day with a yoke of oxen.
Botanists, geneticists and archaeologists have been working together to identify the ancestor of modern corn. Corn’s wild forefather was most likely a grass called teosinte, native to Mexico.
Teosinte‘s skinny ears consist of a single row of a few kernels, each wrapped inside a stone-hard casing. Each plant has only one ear.
Archaeological ruins suggest ancient mesoamerican civilizations prepared teosinte by popping it, much like popcorn, and then grinding the popped kernels into meal.
Many centuries of artificial selection by mesoamerican civilizations resulted in the development of the domesticated corn plants we know today, capable of growing several large cobs per plant.
Mesoamerican traditions, gods, rituals and even identities often involved corn.
The Mayan and Aztec creation myth tells of when gods Kukulkán and Tepeu decided to make an Earth-bound species in their image. For their first attempt they made man from mud, but the mud crumbled. They then decided to make man from wood. However, these men became disloyal to the creators, and the gods destroyed them with rain. Finally, they constructed man from maize. These men flourished. Corn became their sacred staple food.
Chicomecōātl was the most revered Aztec goddess, symbolizing corn and sustenance. She was often depicted wearing an elaborate head dress and holding ears of corn.
At the beginning of each year, Aztecs would plant the corn crops. Ritual dances occurred through out the growing season to thank the corn gods.
Traditionally, when the corn had ripened, Aztec women are said to have let down their hair and danced in the corn fields. Then each picked five ears of corn from the field, and brought them back in a grand procession while singing and dancing. Flower petals were thrown ceremoniously over them as they left the field. Massive “fights” would break out as people tried to cover one another in flower pollen or corn flour.
Mesoamericans learned to soak corn in water alkalized with ash and calcium, liberating precious niacin, preventing pellegra.
Corn continues to play a central role in Mexican cuisine. Corn is the main ingredient of many dishes, including tacos, chilaquiles, tamales, pozole soup, atole and many more.
Elote, Aztec for “corn on the cob,” is a favorite snack in Mexico. It is found at festivals, markets, and offered by street venders. Traditionally elote is seasoned with butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, cheese, lime juice, salt, and/or powdered chili pepper.
A popular spicy corn-based snack food in the United States was reportedly inspired by these traditional elote seasonings. Unfortunately, due to medical mishaps related to the over-consumption of the product and lack of nutritional value, it was banned from many schools. High amounts of red and orange food dye in the treat resulted in parents and children mistaking red coloring in their stool for blood, and rushing to hospitals.
Corn is a good source of the B vitamins thiamin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, and carbohydrate. Corn also contains dietary fiber, magnesium and phosphorus. Yellow corn derives its color from phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin. Red corn’s color is due to anthocyanins and phlobaphenes.
Watch videos about Corn:
This Winter’s Recipe for Flaming Hot Popcorn is a healthful way for families to enjoy a spicy, cheesy snack they can feel good about. Customize toppings to create your ultimate recipe. Pack a bag of popcorn in your lunch box for a snack you can enjoy with friends.
Safety Recommendation: Performing the shaking maneuver with a large pot at burning temperatures with exploding materials can be dangerous. We recommend parents cook the popcorn. Excessive consumption of spicy and acidic foods can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. We recommend consuming these foods in moderation.
Flaming Hot Popcorn
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Yield: ~8 cups popcorn
1/4 cup organic popping corn kernels
Optional: 1 Tablespoon high heat oil (peanut, corn, or coconut)
Recommended Popcorn Seasoning Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons butter or palm oil margarine
1 teaspoon red chili oil
1 packet cheese powder from a box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese
1/2 teaspoon Tajin Clasico (or Pico de Gallo seasoning)
1/4 teaspoon powdered chilies
1/8 teaspoon salt
Additional Optional Popcorn Seasonings:
largest pot with lid
optional: metal spoon
two hot mitts
Place the popcorn (and optional oil and metal spoon to prevent sticking if you wish) in the pot.
Cover pot with lid.
Put on hot mitts.
Place the pot over medium heat.
Shake constantly, sliding the pot back and forth across the burner, until corn begins popping less frequently, ~3 minutes.
Remove pot from heat, continuing to shake, allowing the remaining kernels to pop from the residual heat of the pot.
Remove the lid carefully.
Melt the butter/margarine. Stir in the recommended seasonings.
Pour seasoned butter over popcorn while stirring.
Spoon popcorn into serving bowls. Add additional recommended and optional seasonings to taste. Enjoy!