Yankee Pier at Santana Row: Lend Me Your Ears
Perhaps more than anything else, corn is the quintessential summer food. There’s nothing like going to a barbecue and watching those kernels swell up on a grill. And since we’re approaching the end of summer, there’s no time like the present to get in on the action.
You may have heard corn referred to as maize. This is derivative of the Spanish form of the indigenous Taino word for the plant, maiz. Here it is used more in a global or agricultural context, while in culinary contexts, United States, and other English-speaking countries merely refer to it as ‘corn.’ And if we’re talking about cooking and eating, more often than not, ‘sweet corn.’
Sweet corn is a variety of maize with a higher sugar content, the result of a naturally-occurring recessive mutation in the genes which control conversion of sugar to starch inside the endosperm of the kernel itself, more or less a spontaneous mutuation. Other field corn varieties are usually picked when fully mature (when the kernels have gone dry), sweet corn is picked before this, eaten as a vegetable rather than a grain. Because of its premature harvesting, sweet corn does not store well and should be eaten or frozen within just a day or two, before the kernels become tough and too starchy.
The first recorded instance of sweet corn (called Papoon) was a gift from the Iroquois to European settlers in 1779. Many other Native American tribes grew and cherished this open-pollinated crop and it soon became popular in the southern and central United States. Sweet corn’s production from the 20th century onward changed because separate gene mutations were discovered and studied, allowing the ability to breed based on sweetness levels. Shortly thereafter, hybridization began, allowing for improved quality, uniform maturity and resistance to disease.
Nowadays we are blessed with a supercorn of sorts, a vegetable ridden with potassium and vitamin A, sweet and versatile, a staple for cuisines of all types. Simple and delicious, sweet corn is perfect merely grilled or boiled with a pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt (or lime juice and chile powder), but can be transformed into lovely chowders, muffins, even flans. The possibilities are truly endless.
I personally would recommend purchasing sweet corn at a farmer’s market (look for tight, bright green husks and golden silk) rather than a supermarket, to ensure the freshest possible, in summer months especially Brentwood corn, the cream of the crop of fresh and local corn. Corn aficionados (and fellow growers as well) head to Oakland’s Jack London Square’s farmers’ market early as possible for ears and ears of this reputable corn (it WILL sell out), picked early in the morning in the fields of Brentwood, just an hour or so northwest of San Francisco. Brentwood used to be in the middle of a thriving agricultural region, whereas now it is the last agrarian stronghold against the steady development and urbanization of the greater Bay area. If you see this label, don’t hesitate.
Eat fresh, eat local, always!