The Dirt: The Corn Diaries, part 1

Mid-February

I crave homegrown corn. Creamy, rich, scraped-corn kernels baked with butter, salt and pepper, just like my grandma used to make. The corn was so rich and fresh she didn’t need to add milk or cream.

But I look outside and see my field snowed under. Corn revels in warmth, and my mountainside ground will remain cool until late May.

A corn for the ages: The heirloom variety “Golden Bantam” was once the gold standard by which sweet corn was judged. Courtesy W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

So I satisfy my desire by perusing heirloom seed catalogs and daydreaming. In old-timey varieties of corn, there are more things in heaven and earth than we can imagine, to steal a thought from Shakespeare: Hooker’s Sweet Corn, Big Daddy Yellow, Black Aztec, True Platinum, Texas Honey June, Baby Orchard, Golden Bantam 8-Row and more. There are sweet corns—relatively modern development going back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are corns for flour, corns for popcorn, corns that are best for homemade tortillas, corns good for roasting, corns fit only for decoration, white corn, blue corn, multicolored corn, even “black” corn.

My head swirls. My tummy grumbles. Has the snow melted yet?

Early March

I’ve been dared to grow Golden Bantam, the yellow sweet corn by which all other corns are measured, according to one seed catalog. It’s an heirloom, open-pollinated variety that matures in about 80 days.

“Heirloom” and “open-pollinated” are nice little words that tell you this is no mule of a hybrid that can’t reproduce from its own seed. Heirloom corn varieties rely on old-fashioned open-pollination: the wind. And they beget true seed.

But the wind blows wherever it wishes. For those bent on saving their seed, growing guides recommend separating corn varieties of similar maturity dates (hybrid or heirloom) by several hundred feet, and preferably half a mile or more. Otherwise a starchy dent corn could take the sweet right out of a Bantam or Hooker’s variety, or a flour corn would get too sweet to be fit for cornbread.

Trouble is, I crave a “frying” corn for re-creating my grandma’s creamed corn. In many years of trial efforts, I have concluded that supermarket-bought corn will never, ever, produce a good result. I consider Country Gentleman, a “shoepeg” white heirloom from the 19th century (its kernels refuse to grow in neat rows; it stays in the milk stage longer than many corns; and it’s a cream-corn standard). Being practical, too, I’m drawn to varieties that are drought tolerant, such as True Platinum and Jarvis Prolific. And my curiosity is piqued about multi-colored corns such as Hooker’s and Black Aztec.

By staggering my planting dates and separating my three garden plots, I can plant several varieties and avoid cross-pollination. (Can you imagine the creative names I could come up with for my new breeds? Just mix and match a few of the variety names I listed above, and amuse yourself a bit.) Too bad I don’t have a huge estate to play with.

Less than three of my five acres are available for gardening, and I can’t live on corn alone. Time for hard choices.

Mid-March

My grandmother kept bantam chickens, a small feisty variety whose antics amused her. So I order Golden Bantam 8-row (“golden” for yellow, “bantam” as a catchy name W. Atlee Burpee gave the short variety in 1902, and 8-row for its neat rows of kernels). It’s a small (5- to 6-foot tall) mid-season corn, bred by William Chambers of Massachusetts and, after his death, sold to Burpee by a supposed friend of the family who “found” a few buckets of seed (in the tale of another corn variety, Stowell’s Evergreen, a “friend of the family” sold the seed to a big company and the money never quite made to Mr. Stowell, who died a poor man despite the popularity of his corn).

Early corn critics described Bantam as “A sterling novelty of extreme hardiness” (1906) and “the finest flavored of all the sweet corns” (1929), but cautioned that its milk stage is short: Pick it and eat it posthaste, ‘cause it won’t hold its sweetness in storage.

I dallied with the Country Gentleman, named for a 19th century agriculture magazine, but instead I let fancy take me to Ira Hooker’s sweet corn. Imagine what a Google search for this variety turned up—it took me a spell to get past the, ahem, “escort” services to find seed sources for this early, yellow-red-and-blue corn. It doesn’t mind cool weather, or a bit of shade, and it’s ready in as little as 60 days.

Just for fun, I ordered Mandan Red, a late-season, multiuse variety that’s good for fresh eating in as little as 80 to 90 days, but best for flour if allowed to fully ripen and dry.

And oh yes, I caught a wild hair, as grandmother would have said: I ordered some Mennonite Sorghum, another grass variety that’s related to corn. I never liked sorghum syrup as a kid, though I loved chewing on the sweet stalks. Now its rich, old-fashioned flavor pleases my nostalgia buds. I have no idea how well it will grow, but it’s drought tolerant. Ever hopeful, I’m on the search for folks with old-timey cane-pressing machines and syrup vats.

My partner has officially certified me as nuts for corn.

[Freelance writer and former city girl Margaret Williams and her partner now delight in simple country pleasures, such as discovering a local source for free composted horse manure.]

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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