Hard to believe corn was developed from a grass, but that’s the story. Teosinte, corn’s ancestor, didn’t look much like our tall stalks with plump ears; amazing what a few thousand years of careful selection can lead to. We may enjoy corn on the cob, but for most of human history, corn’s value was in the dried grains that could be stored for winter food. There’s evidence that the native peoples of Mexico were eating corn 7,000 years ago. Sweet corn is a mutation of field corn that occurred a few thousand years back. In addition to sweet corn, the selection includes dent and flint corn, popcorn and gourdseed corn, which is really pretty much of a novelty. You may also hear the term field corn, which is basically a name for all corn except sweet and popcorn. When you’re eating it as a vegetable, corn is definitely one of those foods where you want to have the water boiling before you go out in the field to pick it. That’s particularly true of open-pollinated sweet corn, as it doesn’t have the storage qualities of hybrid sweet corn. It tastes incomparably better, though. Flint corn is a soft starch kernel covered by a hard coating, good for corn meal. Dent corn is similar but the cores are soft, which allows the ends to collapse when the corn dries, leaving the characteristic dent. This is the most commonly corn grown in the US, used for syrup, grits, meals, flours, biofuel, silage and livestock feed. Dent corn also makes good roasting ears. If you catch it in the very narrow window when it’s still milky, it’s pretty good as corn on the cob. Not real sweet, but a great corn flavor. Flour corn is mostly soft with a thin coat and is used for corn flour, although it can also be parched. Popcorn is very starchy, which is why it explodes when heated.
- Golden Bantam – Developed by a Massachusetts farmer named William Chambers in the late 1800s, this was the first corn bred specifically to be eaten fresh. Chambers would share fresh corn but never his seed, and it wasn’t until after his death that Burpee released Golden Bantam to the general public (1902). Not to say that farmers hadn’t been roasting or boiling field corn, but fresh eating wasn’t its main purpose. If you’re going to grow this variety, it’s best to succession plant or get it in the freezer as soon as it ripens, because it doesn’t stay in the milk stage very long.
- Stowell’s Evergreen – a white sweet corn, developed by Nathan Stowell in New Jersey, in 1848. The “evergreen” part of its name refers to the fact that you can pull the corn just before it ripens and hang it upside down in the barn. The plant will stay green and the ears will continue to ripen for about a month.
- Country Gentleman – introduced by Frank Woodruff and Sons in 1890. It’s a shoe peg corn, meaning the kernels are tightly but unevenly packed. It often bears better than other sweet corns because it will have three ears to the stalk instead of the more common two ears. Makes great creamed corn.
- Hickory King – this is a classic hominy corn, with 12 foot stalks and great big yellow kernels. It originated in Appalachia in the late 1800s. Also good for roasting ears, grits, cornmeal, masa harina and corn nuts. It does better with some extra calcium, so bone meal in the soil is a good idea.
- Reid’s Yellow Dent – an oldie and goodie, initially bred by Robert Reid in 1847. His son, James, continued to improve the corn between 1870 and 1900. It was a heavy producer; Reid got 120 bushels of corn an acre in 1877, when the average yield at the time was 27 bushels an acre. The ears are big and heavy. Makes good silage, hominy, masa harina, grits and meal. Sometimes you’ll get an ear with red kernels. In the days when husking bees were common, the fellow who found an ear with red kernels was entitled to claim a kiss from the girl of his choice. Husking corn by hand is a laborious process when you’re dealing with many acres of corn, and having a party to get the neighbors to participate in the husking is a good idea. The possibility of getting smooched was a sneaky way to get the youngsters to help.
- Painted Mountain – Dave Christenson created this corn from over 70 different corns garnered from the descendants of Native Americans and homesteaders in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. He was trying to create a genetically diverse corn that would grow well in Montana. Although not an heirloom, as it’s only about 40 years old, this corn has more genetic diversity than any other corn out there. It’s extremely colorful, high in nutrients and antioxidants, and can be used for roasting, hominy or corn meal. It’s also a little more cold-tolerant than most corns.
- Japanese Hulless Popcorn – these are small plants, maybe reaching five feet, but the popcorn kernels have a very thin skin and a great taste. It’s a fairly old variety, although no one seems to know just how old.
- Six Shooter – this one is unusual because it typically bears at least six ears. They are a little smaller than most corn ears. The kernels are irregularly spaced and the cob often shows through. It tastes pretty good and freezes well. No one seems to know anything about its history and seeds are very hard to find.
- Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher – this dent corn has big ears, up to 14 inches long, on stalks that can grow up to 18 feet tall. As the name indicates, the famous Bloody Butcher red dent corn was one of its parents. Daymon Morgan’s has multi-colored ears (meaning it’s high in antioxidants) and frequently presents you with all-red or all-blue ears. The Morgan family of Leslie County, in eastern Kentucky, began growing this corn in the late 1800s. Most seeds today are from corn selected by Susana Lein of Salamander Springs farm in Berea, Kentucky and sold as Kentucky Rainbow. It’s very productive, drought tolerant and good for roasting or corn meal.
If I could only choose one… Golden Bantam is hands down the best corn for eating fresh. It’s also a short-season corn (about 80 days) which is advantageous if you’re running late with planting or have an early frost. Reid’s Yellow Dent is the best choice for cornmeal. But for all-around use, I’d go with Painted Mountain or Daymon Morgan’s if I could only have one corn variety. Part of the rationale for my choice is that highly colored corns like these have more of those health-promoting antioxidants. While these will not be as sweet as a corn developed specifically for eating fresh, if you catch them during the short “milk stage” and cook them immediately, they will still taste pretty darned good.
Corn is particularly high in fiber, and while it’s mostly carbohydrate, it does have close to four grams of protein in an average ear. It also has a wide array of trace minerals and vitamins, including thiamin, folate, vitamins C, A, E, B6, and K, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, selenium and the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein.