Children of the corn
by Kelly Donati
The women in my family are very fond of eating corn. A regular autumn ritual for my French-Canadian mother and I involved fetching a dozen freshly-picked cobs from a local farmer on the side of the road and eating half a dozen or more (each) for dinner. No entrées, no sides….just corn in all its yellowy, sweet goodness served with nothing but a generous rubbing of butter and sprinkling of salt. There was little conversation during these corn-gorging sessions, only the sound of two people contentedly and systematically munching their way across cob after sweet cob until, satiated, we could eat no more.
Corn (Zea mays), or maize in some countries, is known in Quebec as blé d’inde, meaning “wheat of the Indies” as coined by Christopher Columbus. The corn he encountered would have looked nothing like Peaches and Cream, my personal favourite and an extraordinarily juicy, “supersweet” hybrid variety with bi-colour kernels that are prone to squirting you or your corn-eating companion in the eye with their creamy juices. Since my mother died, home has been my aunt’s house in Quebec, where I try to organise my visits around the corn season which reaches its peak in autumn (and happily coincides with the tomato season as well as the turning of the leaves). When a group of Quebecois come together to eat corn en masse, it is called an “l’épluchette”, derived from éplucher (“to peel”) – in essence, a corn-peeling party. L’épluchette is an old autumn tradition that, like the mistletoe at Christmas, was an opportunity for kisses to be exchanged with a person of one’s choice when a rare red cob was found amongst the pile of yellow corn.
Long before the Quebecois were exchanging kisses at épluchettes, corn was found along the reaches of the St Lawrence river valley in southern Quebec and other parts of North America where many First Nations peoples grew it alongside squash and beans as early as 1000AD. But it was the Mesoamericans of today’s southern Mexico which first domesticated and made remarkable improvements to maize which is, in fact, a descendent of the large grass plant, teosinte. Teosinte and today’s sweet corn varieties bear little resemblance to one another, leaving agronomists baffled for a good part of a century as to the true origins of corn. It is testament to just how remarkable corn has been in responding to farmers’ attempts to cultivate and improve it over millennia, proving itself a crop that could make radical leaps forward in terms of flavour or yield when the conditions were right.
The difference between maize (as it is known on the global market) and corn in the supermarket is a question of sugar. The sugars in maize are quickly converted into starch once picked, making it particularly unsuited to transport if destined for fresh consumption. During the 1950s, assistant professor of botany John Laughan developed the modern “supersweet” varieties of corn found on supermarket shelves. Though fresh is always best when it comes to corn, the sugars of supersweet varieties are a bit more forgiving in their transport.
The civilizations of Mesoamerica regarded maize as a gift of the gods and a sustainer of life itself. In more recent history, particularly in the last century, maize has been esteemed more for its commercial than sacred qualities and now sustains enormous industries that have little regard for its cultural history or gastronomic qualities. Ever adaptable and accommodating, the sowing and harvesting of corn was easily mechanised and industralised. Michael Pollan has aptly described it as a “keystone species” of the industrial food system and attributes the frightening obesity figures in the United States to the fact that corn appears in one form or another – from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to hydrolyzed corn protein – in almost every processed food product in the supermarket. Without corn (and food scientists), our supermarkets would be void of pre-prepared sauces (such as sweet chili and tomato sauces), salad dressings and ice creams (in the form of xanthan gum) or soft drinks, to name just a few products. It’s safe to assume that if a supermarket product has any degree of sweetness and can sit on a shelf for months at a time, it contains HFCS which is cheaper and has the benefit of a longer shelf life than ordinary sugar.
Corn’s abundant starches have also made it useful as animal feed. Without corn, the livestock industry would not have been able to keep up with the Western world’s appetite for meat. We are even feeding corn to fish. More recently, it has become one of the foundation crops of the ethanol industry, sparking intense debate about the logic of using prime agricultural land for fuel production when food prices are skyrocketing and 925 million people go hungry every day globally. The irony is that 10% of the world’s population is obese; in the US and Australia, the statistics are much higher. Not surprisingly, processed foods containing HFCS feature heavily in the diets of both countries. Scientists have found that rats fed HFCS had more increased levels of weight gain, body fat and triglycerides (otherwise known as “metabolic syndrome”) than those fed on a diet of cane sugar, proving that not all sugars are created equal. Clearly, highly processed corn is as good for fattening up people as it is livestock.
Long gone are the smaller, family farms that produced corn for local markets. As one of the most heavily subsidised crops in the world, the United States produces far more corn – the majority of which is genetically modified – than the world is likely to want to eat, propping up an entire industry of corporate farms that would not operate profitably without significant government support. What this means for the rest of the world is an abundance of cheap US corn on the global market, so much so that it is cheaper for Mexicans to purchase American corn than that which has been produced by their own farmers. This is gradually decimating the industry in a country that essentially gave corn to the world.
In Australia, corn has had less historical, cultural or commercial significance, with production here miniscule compared to the US or Canada. Over half of Australia’s corn supply comes from NSW, with fresh corn – only about 10% of total production – originating from around the Hunter Valley, coastal districts and the Sydney basin, an area increasingly under threat from urban development. The majority of Australia’s corn is fed to animals or supplies the frozen and processed food industries locally and overseas.
A worrying development has been the very recent and stealthy introduction of SmartStax corn in Australia. As one of Monsanto’s most expensive corn seeds, SmartStax is a GM variety named after its clever “stacking” of eight genetically engineered qualities – six with pesticidal characteristics (meaning it is toxic to insects that munch on the leaves or cobs) and two for herbicide resistance. The hefty price tag comes with a promise that it is the highest yielding corn seed available. The fact that SmartStax has failed to deliver has been more a concern for farmers and Monsanto shareholders than for consumers, until now.
Food Standards Australia NZ (FSANZ) has introduced SmartStax into the Australian food supply without any public notification, independent testing or labelling. There’s no risk of finding SmartStax in the fresh produce section of the supermarket; GM varieties are bred for yield rather than flavour and therefore find themselves in processed foods, such as corn starch and the ubiquitous corn syrups, rather than sold fresh. In its recent food labelling review, FSANZ determined that only “novel” proteins or DNA in foods require labelling. The hole in this policy recommendation is twofold. Firstly, the DNA is considered to be removed during processing, such that SmartStax and most other GM corns used in processed foods are excluded from labelling requirements. Secondly, SmartStax was created through conventional crossbreeding of already approved GM corn varieties and is therefore not considered “novel”. Yet the potential polypharmaceutical risks – that is, the unanticipated health effects when multiple medications or chemicals are used in combination – have never been tested independently by FSANZ or anyone else. Consumers have no way of knowing what they are eating now or what the long-term epidemiological effects might be. We are advised by the experts to have faith in the science. On the subject of the science behind SmartStax corn, Dr Peter Langridge, professor at the University of Adelaide and CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, assured the Australian public on The 7.30 Report that: “…there's no scientific reason to suppose there should be any problem in mixing [the genes] together. So I think this is actually a fairly safe combination of genes.” This doesn’t inspire me to fall at the altar of science.
Corn has always been the product of agricultural innovation and scientific and industrial development, but never has it travelled so far afield from its origins in Mesoamerica. With this in mind, I’ll stick to my corn on the cob. For me, enjoying it simply boiled and buttered is a way of remembering my mother and returning an element of sacred ritual to a crop which has sustained civilisations for millennia. Besides, like eating a tomato straight from the garden, a fresh cob of corn is a glorious way to capture the sweetness of the season.
Next time you find a corn producer at your local farmers market, celebrate the abundance of the autumn by picking up a dozen or two and throwing an épluchette for your friends and family. Be sure not to salt the water which will toughen the kernels during cooking. If you can’t get your hands on fresh corn, try this simple recipe for caramel butter popcorn and feel like a kid again.
Caramel Butter Popcorn
Firstly, find an organic, preferably Australian-grown, popcorn. Next, pop your corn using your method of preference. As a regular consumer of popcorn, I’ve invested in a hot-air popcorn maker which is oil-free and quick. However, some prefer the old-fashioned stove-top method. When popping corn on the stove, be sure to occasionally lift the lid partway to allow some steam to escape as the moisture on the inside of the lid can cause the popped corn to lose its fluffiness.
Pour into a large bowl when ready and douse with generous lashings of butter and a good quality salt. Don’t be shy with the salt as the sweetness of the caramel will balance it out later.
200 grams refined sugar
200 mls water
Use more or less sugar and water depending on how much caramel you like on your popcorn. These quantities should be enough for a large bowl of popcorn (about 130 grams of unpopped kernels).
Bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil. Reduce for several minutes. As the mixture turns a caramel brown, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Even when it stops bubbling, DO NOT TOUCH the mixture at any stage. It will hurt like hell. For those uninitiated in the art of caramel-making, it may be tempting to wipe your finger across your serving spoon. Melted sugar is very hot and sticks to the skin as it burns.
The syrup should thicken as it cools. To test it for readiness, whisk it lightly with a fork. Just as it starts to form fine strands of caramel (almost like glass), pour it over the buttered popcorn. When the caramel is warm and still pliable (but not hot), you can make big balls of popcorn, or enjoy straight out of the bowl.
It’s junk food extraordinaire, and your kids will love you for it.
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