I sat on my couch post-Independence Day thinking about which food most represents America, and came to the conclusion the answer is undoubtedly corn. True, corn was around long before the United States, but began its rise to culinary power from humble beginnings somewhere in Central America and radiated northward and southward.
Myriad Indian tribes have myths explaining how corn came to be here on Earth. Some say it was an angelic female form that blessed villagers who fed her when she was but a weary traveler. Another myth says it was planted by the god Nesaru and Mother Corn, who led the good people from the east to the west after the great flood annihilated the arrogantly strong giants. Almost every region has its own legend of how corn came to the earth, so I’d say it was pretty important to our aboriginal ancestors.
Myths aside, conflicting theories about the actual birth of corn in the Americas agree corn was likely created from natural crossings, but once domesticated — most likely in Mexico — it would not have been able to survive in the wild. The corn we eat in modern times has been perpetuated by the hand of man.
Our European friends hadn’t heard of corn until ol’ Chris Columbus returned with the grain (along with other plants native to our shores) after his successful journey to this part of the Western Hemisphere. From his return to Spain, it spread to France and England, making a mark on the culinary world before finding its way to the Far East during the following century.
That’s enough about its migration overseas. Let’s look at the impact of corn here in the U.S. We have our obvious food products, recipes and various ways to ingest it. That includes corn liquor. The moonshine business of the Prohibition era created overnight criminals, fodder for a million bluegrass songs and an irresponsible medical condition called “jake-leg.” Running ‘shine also begat NASCAR, as only the best drivers could outrun the revenuers. Corn is still the main component of various types of alcohol and must be the major grain in bourbon.
High-fructose corn syrup changed the soda pop industry in the 1970s as a replacement for cane sugar. Now you can find it in just about anything with added sugars. The difference in flavor is subtle at best, and many cannot find a discrepancy in blind taste tests.
Ethanol fuel is usually made from corn. Imagine the alcohol we drink as an additive to the gasoline we get at the pump. There is a generous amount of corn in your tank at any given time, as most cars can run on blends of up to 10% ethanol. The U.S. is the top producer of the fuel, with Brazil a distant second.
Don’t worry. I haven’t lost track of the fact that this is a food column. I’m just stressing the importance of the almighty grain and how it has affected our economy in recent years. My current crop of corn is absolutely pitiful. Too much rain, a bit of neglect and two dogs who can’t keep their paws out of the garden have left me with a whopping zero ears of corn this year.
I’ve relied heavily on the farmers markets of our area for my sweet corn this season. Silver queen and silver king do just fine for me. But one of my greener-thumbed students, Tim Barnhill (thanks for the recent tomatoes, Tim) graciously introduced me to a variety called Devotion a few years ago. I’m always on the lookout for those babies and consider it the perfect sweetness for any corn.
It’s hard to beat fresh corn, but I’m almost as excited when it comes from the freezer. I hated silking corn as a kid, but Lucas and Graham find it fun. In the summer heat I love a corn salad with fresh corn, tomatoes, green onion and a bit of mayonnaise. Add to that some diced jalapenos from the garden and you’ll really have something. There are even Pinterest recipes that toss in blueberries, but Khaki, my mom, never strayed from tradition.
When the sun went down and the meals were hot, she served a casserole that melts my sister’s heart. I can’t talk about corn without sharing this favorite. It’s on the trivet resting tableside at every holiday meal, and at many other dinners for no special occasion.
Khaki’s Corn Casserole
4 cups fresh creamed corn or 2 14-oz. cans
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
¾ cups self rising cornmeal
1 cup grated cheddar cheese divided
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. You must take care in using a smaller, deeper dish for this casserole. I have an oval shaped dish that is my “go-to” for this one. A 13-by-9 casserole pan would yield thin results and we don’t want that. Smaller is better in this case.
Begin by greasing and flouring the baking dish. In a separate mixing bowl combine all ingredients except the cheese. Pour half of the mixture into the dish. Sprinkle 3/4 of the cheese onto that layer. Top with the other half of the mixture. Cover with the remaining cheese. Add salt and pepper.
Bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until the middle is set and a toothpick comes out clean.
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