Corn - it is the most mystical of American plants, and it is the most American of plants.
Americans use or consume - in one form or another, from vegetables to corn-fed meat to industrial products - three pounds of corn, and corn products, per capita per day. Less than 10 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is intended for human consumption.
If you were to take the combined total of tonnage of American wheat, oats, rice and barley crops, they would together just equal the American corn crop.
Corn originated in the New World - somewhere in Central America - after the last ice age receded; it was taken from America (the first samples by Christopher Columbus) and eventually spread worldwide.
Corn can make you robust with health, but if you eat only corn, and corn alone, it can kill you - as pellagra did to hundreds of thousands.
In combination with other foods, however, corn nourishes the globe, but that is the nutritionist's view of corn. The folk historian has more fun.
Corn is a product of human cultivation and lore. Separated by millennia from its wild grass origins, hybridized by agro-engineering, corn is no longer capable of its own reproduction. Corn needs us as much as we once depended upon it.
The first Pilgrim commerce between whites and Native Americans on this continent involved corn, that is, if you consider theft, commerce. The first Indian settlement that the Mayflower travelers came across on Cape Cod contained a store of seed corn (the natives had fled); our pious fathers stole it. A year later, their own stocks of other seeds gone bad, the Pilgrims learned how to cultivate their own fields of corn.
Corn is a great provider of nourishment - it is also a great taker. Capable of growing up to four inches a day in height (corn belt farmers swear you can hear it growing, new leaves unfolding on hot, still summer nights), corn pulls nitrogen from the soil in botanical gulps.
And what's this nonsense about rushing the picked corn from the field to the kitchen? It's true the instant you pick an ear of corn, it begins to convert its natural sugar to starch. The longer you wait between harvesting and cooking, the more of those sugars (and the natural sweetness we all love in fresh corn) turns to corn starch. I have the cooking water boiling before I pick the corn. How fast do you have to get it to the pot? There's an old saying, my friend grinned. You run. And if you happen to drop an ear, you don't stop to pick it up.
For all of that, the appreciation of corn is not universal. Italians love corn but eat it primarily in its boiled, dried-meal form - polenta. The French regard it as animal food. So do 90 percent of American farmers - who grow it for hogs, poultry and cattle feed. It is almost impossible in our culture to eat meat that is not corn-fed.
Napoleon baby corn comes from Thailand - in brine, and pickled - and most often seen as a vegetable in Asian dishes or in salad bars. We took our baby corn at a low temperature to have the color more yellow, but also to have our corn crisp to the big “freshness” outweighs color however.