Corn, High as an Elephant's Eye
CORN, ONCE ONE OF THE SIMPLEST foods, has become complicated. The starchy kernels that have been a staple in the diet of traditional cultures in the Americas for thousands of years now are wrapped up in political debate, feedlots, laboratories and fancy packaging. Most commercial corn today is genetically modified to resist diseases and pests, and even reproduction. Corn byproducts can be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of products, from toothpaste to fabrics. It is a form of sustenance for some, income for others, and the banner over a call to arms for those unhappy with new government subsidies designed to spur the production of (corn-based) ethanol.
But, at the heart of it, corn is still food, and it remains one of the true heralds of summer in the Northeast, and a defining crop for Hudson Valley agriculture.
Corn has been cultivated in New York since about 500 AD, beginning with the ancestors of the Native American people known today as the Iroquois, who revered it as one of the "Three Sisters" (along with beans and squash).
Most of the corn grown in the region falls into one of two categories: sweet and flint. "Sweet corn" actually is slightly immature corn harvested while the kernels are still young and tender and not yet entirely converted to starch. Sweet corn is the result of mutations in the original strains of corn—slowly cultivated and encouraged by farmers for at least a couple of hundred years in the United States—that have led to increased sweetness and tenderness. Now, the majority of large-scale Hudson Valley corn growers are cultivating "supersweet" varieties that maintain their sweetness for several days and are designed to uphold for travel and store for days or even weeks.
In the past 20 years, the prevalence of supersweet varieties has grown; new varieties appear every year. According to Blake Meyers, seed representative for the Michigan-based Siegers Seed Company, upwards of 2,000 sweet corn varieties might be tested this year in New York State; about 20 varieties will be cultivated on a large scale.
Small-scale growers, like most of those with roadside stands, have tended to stick to the "standard" corn varieties, also referred to as "SE" (sugar enhanced). In an ear of standard sweet corn, the sugar rapidly begins to convert to starch at the moment the ear is picked. The time-tested advice—put the water on to boil before you pick the corn—is rooted in science and isn't just an eccentric slogan. Another way to put it? The fresher the better.
"In my whole life, I've never sold an ear of corn that wasn't picked that day," notes grower Wright Dykeman, whose family has farmed the 300-acre Dykeman Farm, near Pawling, since the 1800s. (Dykeman also keeps his farmstand open 24 hours a day from July to November—on an honor system. "I've had people come at 10pm for corn," Dykeman says. "They just leave money. I trust my customers.")
Dykeman's favorite way to eat corn? Raw. "That's when you see the difference," he says. If it must be cooked, do as Dykeman's grandmother did: "Boil the water; drop in the corn. When it boils again, take it out."
With morels, in fritters, in succotash or risotto—it marries so well with so many things. It's nutty and vibrant and real.
Jim Story, of Story Farms, in Catskill, concurs. "I don't do that much cooking of it—I just eat it, raw," he says. The Story Farm has been in the family since 1897, and is currently worked by the fourth and fifth generation of Story farmers—Jim, his brother and each of their sons. They grow 100 acres of sweet corn, along with strawberries and several other vegetables.
One of the most eagerly anticipated consumer crops, sweet corn is intrinsically tied to summer barbecues, picnics and parties. Most often served on the cob, it can be steamed, grilled, boiled or roasted, rolled in butter or dusted with salt and herbs.
At Miss Lucy's Kitchen, in Saugerties, chef Marc Propper acknowledges both the versatility of corn and the importance of freshness. "On the day it's picked, it's just so sweet and delicious—you can't recreate that," Propper exclaims. "With morels, in fritters, in succotash or risotto—it marries so well with so many things. It's nutty and vibrant and real." David Wurth, of Local 111 in Philmont, notes, "I'll use it in a hundred different ways. The moment it appears it goes on the menu—and it stays until the season's over."
Perhaps the beauty of sweet corn is its fleeting tenure in the market. "It marks the summer for anyone who's grown up in or near the country" says Irene Story, of Story Farms. "People buy it fresh every day and eat it every night for the whole season, and they cry when it's gone."
One thing both small and large growers seem to have in common is a reluctance to disclose the specific varieties of corn they grow as if it were a trade secret or a competition. "White, yellow, bi-color" is the standard response, and that seems to be good enough for consumers. What really counts for this quintessential Hudson Valley food of summer, is the taste.
Traditionally a high-spray crop, more farmers in the region are turning toward low-spray methods for their corn. A few farmers, including Cheryl Rogowski, at W. Rogowski Farm in Pine Island, and Mike Biltonen, of Stone Ridge Orchard in Stone Ridge, are experimenting with alternative growing methods. Rogowski, who is Certified Naturally Grown, will employ Trichogramma wasps, a parasitic insect that can help to control the corn ear warm, and topically applied Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt), an organically approved method of pest control (not to be confused with genetically modified Bt corn). Biltonen, who will be growing Certified Organic sweet corn for the first time, plans to use aggressive field rotation, beneficial border crops and artificial insect traps to control pests.
Sweet corn is most familiar to consumers, but it's really only half of the picture. Though most dry corn today goes towards animal feed or ethanol, for most of its history, corn has been harvested dry—for human consumption. "Flint corn" varieties are meant to fully mature on the stalk—after harvest, the corn is dried and ground into cornmeal or flour. (Also in the dry corn column is popcorn. Though it's most often thought of as a home-garden crop, a few farmers have begun producing it for sale at farmers' markets. At Conuco Farm in New Paltz, Hector Tajeda grows an heirloom strain of popcorn known as Tom Thumb, which he sells on the cob at greenmarkets in New York City.)
Don Lewis, of Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners [see "Have oven, will travel," Valley Table 30], has contracted with Lightning Tree Farm, an organic grain farm in Millbrook, to purchase their open-pollinated, organic flint corn. Lewis, a baker by trade, grinds corn in his mill the traditional way—between two rotating pink granite slabs. Much of the corn is used in the bakery, but the farm markets small packages of cornmeal to stores throughout the Hudson Valley. The goal is two-fold, Lewis says: to provide a great product for consumers, but also to show farmers a new and successful marketing opportunity for corn. It's a positive thing, he says, when corn is being used to feed people—not animals in feedlots, and not to mix with gasoline. He'd like to inspire others to follow in his footsteps, and to show new farmers that it can be a viable, and profitable choice.
The quality of Lewis's cornmeal has earned it a spot in professional kitchens. Kathy Balis, of Babette's Kitchen, in Millbrook, notes, "I was attracted to his cornmeal simply because it's a local product, but once I tried it—tasted that unique, nutty quality and the great texture—it was like, OK, what else can we use this in?"
For such a simple plant, corn has quite a history. It's been coaxed and prodded over thousands of years from an inedible wild grass to the sweet corn that we savor each summer, and the flint corn that appears in everything from polenta to tortillas. Mike Tarbell, a Mohawk, is the educator at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave (Schoharie County)—which, incidentally, holds a corn festival each year. He notes that corn as we know it never would have existed if it weren't for human intervention. At least, Tarbell says, "Corn is one positive thing that we've done to feed the world."