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Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods: Concerns About Corn

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Fall is arriving, and that means the end of the fresh corn season. For some, this quintessentially American food is happily identified with picnics and backyard barbecues. But for others, corn sparks debates on complex issues such as genetic engineering and ethanol. In many ways, this native North American grain is a symbol of the complicated relationship the U.S. has with food production.

Betty Fussell is the author of The Story of Corn and Crazy for Corn. She said that the cultivation of corn dated back to Mexico’s Olmec and Mayan civilizations.

“[Corn] was the metaphor for the entire universe — a sacred plant on which life and death depended,” said Fussell.

Fast forward to modern-day America — when corn has become a staple food and a controversial commodity. Because of the industrialization of production, corn is now a full-time commodity on the scale of a petroleum product, Fussell said.

That shift has placed the focus for many farmers on maximizing yield above all else.

“All those thousands and thousands of varieties are reduced to a single, hybrid, commercial corn,” she explained. “Everything is geared to how many kernels per cob, how many cobs per stalk.

The result is that corn is energy intensive to produce. Some 50 gallons of oil are needed to produce 140 bushels of corn, according to Fussell. That oil is spent on fertilization as well as pest prevention.

“Corn is then completely dependent on oil, but more than this, most of the corn crops goes into animals,” she added.

And that’s just commodity corn, which is one of five different types of corn (pop, flint, flour, sweet and dent).

The fresh corn found in grocery stores is sweet corn. It makes up less than 1 percent of America’s corn production. But even sweet corn comes with its fair share of controversial issues. Betty Fussell

“Your grandfather would get Country Gentleman, Golden Bantem, Silver Queen," said Fussell. "These were true varieties of sweet corn. Since then, it’s been engineered for super sweetness, so it’s 20 to 30 to 40 percent sweeter — because we like extremes, so we don’t hold back. But the trouble with that is that everything begins to taste alike and the variety doesn’t make nearly as much difference.”

Fussell said she was thrilled that growing awareness of food issues has made many organic foods more available then they were 20 years ago. But she still takes issue with one practice that continues to happen regularly at the Union Square green market: “Why are [people] still stripping back the husks of fresh corn, violating this perfect package? For what? To find a worm? The husk is a beautiful wrapper and it contains the moisture, which is what we’re looking for in fresh corn. We’re not looking for sweetness. The sweetness doesn’t change as it used to in our granddaddy’s time because it’s been engineered differently now.”

Below, get two of Fussell’s favorite corn recipes.

Creamed Corn in Chili Butter
by Betty Fussell, from Crazy for Corn (HarperPerennial, 1995)
Serves 4

  • 4 dried chilies, such as ancho, mulato, or chipotle
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 6 to 8 ears fresh corn (3 to 4 cups kernels)

Discard the stems of the chilies. Break them open, shake out the seeds, and tear out the veins. Tear the chilies in large pieces and toast them in a heavy skillet over low heat, holding the pieces flat with a spatula as you toast (1 or 2 minutes a side). Pulverize them in a spice grinder and reserve.

Melt the butter in the skillet, add the onion, and sauté until softened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, seasonings, and the half-and-half and mix well. Stir in the pulverized chilies and let the mixture simmer 2 or 3 minutes. Add the corn kernels and simmer 2 minutes more.

"This has always been my favorite after a summer of gnawing fresh corn on the cob. For me there will never be enough butter or cream, but I recognize that some faint hearts get scared off by merely naming such ingredients.  For them, I suggest an end of summer Fresh Corn Sauté as follows." —Betty Fussell

Fresh Corn Sauté

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped fine
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced
  • 6 to 8 ears fresh corn (3 to 4 cups kernels)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 to 4 leaves of fresh basil, chopped

Heat oil in a large skillet, add the pepper and onion and sauté 2 or 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and sauté a couple of minutes. Add the corn, season with salt, pepper and basil. Mix well, taste and serve.