Friday, September 14, 2012

Children of the Corn

Recently I froze 10 pints of corn for the winter. I love fresh sweet corn.  If it is a hot day, the corn can almost be eaten raw. All and all, picking, shucking, scrubbing, blanching, cutting, and storing the corn took about 3-1/2hrs. I was also watching my two young nephews at the time, so it isn’t such a labor intensive or time consuming project. I think it is important that adults model to children how to grow vegetables and take care of animals. Growing and storing food is becoming a lost skill, and we as a people are becoming too distant from what we are putting into our bodies.

There are several challenges with growing corn. The weather can be problematic because corn needs quite a bit of water. It is also susceptible to hail damage and high winds. If corn plants are not planted at a proper distance from each other, pollination will be splotchy. Usually the corn always has some earworms, but this year I didn’t see any of the caterpillars. Finding an earworm in an ear of corn is not a big deal because they usually eat just a few kernels. I remember my dad used to say, “If the bugs don’t even want to eat a plant, do you really want to eat it?” This was his argument against using pesticides on vegetables. There were a couple corn plants that had corn smut, which is a type of fungus. Corn smut is routinely used in authentic Mexican dishes and is called huitacoche. It grows best when the weather is abnormally dry. The fungus infects the corn by entering the ovaries and replaces the kernels with large tumors that resemble small greyish black mushrooms. It is said to taste sweet and is used in quesadilla fillings and soups.

Corn is one of the most filling foods I grow, but it isn’t particularly nutritious. In the area where I live, a popular way to eat corn is something called hominy and is usually eaten as whole kernels. I’m not sure of the whole process to making hominy, but I know the kernels are soaked in lye, which breaks down the outer part of the kernel. Adding an alkali solution to corn is called nixatamalization. By treating the corn with a lye solution, it makes the niacin available for us to use in our bodies. There is a risk of developing a disease called pellagra if niacin is deficient from the diet. The symptoms are classified by the “four D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death. During the early 20th century, the disease was common among poor southerners, and it was thought that it was caused by a toxin in the corn because of the correlation between high corn consumption and a high prevalence of pellagra. The reason for the correlation was the corn was generally eaten in the form of grits or corn meal and not as hominy. Now our corn products are fortified with niacin, so pellagra is virtually non-existent in most developed countries. 

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