article

08.25.09

How Corn Got So Sweet

Why we should take a lesson from food expert Betty Fussell and not let the relentless pursuit of progress ruin the pleasure of summer corn.

Corn has a complex history and continues to be well-documented, perhaps most notably by author Betty Fussell. Her 2004 book, The Story of Corn, not only made the world understand that there’s a lot more to corn than serving as the exclamation point at the end of the summer, but also demonstrated how this particular food’s evolution is intertwined with mankind’s own story. Heavy stuff.

Fussell is a food journalist, a cookbook author, and an expert’s expert. What she knows, she knows perhaps better than anyone else, and one of the first subjects she became famous for knowing was corn. Her award-winning book swept us all up in the epic story of the grain that built the New World. We learned how corn transformed the way the whole world eats, from people to livestock, and with its mercurial genetic structure, it found its way into everything from explosives to embalming fluid. As Fussell writes, “Corn made the whole world kin.”

The fact is that with the mutation of foods like corn and tomatoes (not to mention packaged goods like breakfast cereals), the American palate has been mutated as well.

Despite how well-trod much of this information is, there is something I haven’t fully understood, largely because I haven’t wanted to know the answer. Why is corn so much sweeter than it used to be, and is this a good thing? I am aware that the answer involves the words “genetic” and “mutation,” and is probably not going to make me sleep better at night, but I call Fussell to face the reality. I am hoping the answer doesn’t leave me with a corn-free August.

Corn is sweeter across the board. It has been genetically modified to be sweeter, to have a longer shelf life, and to keep its sweetness throughout its longer life. So can you go to a farmer’s market and get other varieties of corn, different from those super sweets available everywhere else? Probably not. Fussell says that in most cases, farmers are ordering their seeds from industrial catalogs, and if you ask them what kind of corn they are growing, they might offer up a number instead of a name.

Why is this? Most of us can remember the old adage that you should have a pot of water already boiling before you picked your corn, since the moment it left the stalk the natural sugar starts to convert into starch. But about 25 years ago, in the interest of making winter corn viable for shipping, the very mutate-able corn was bioengineered to be sweeter so that when it reached its destination, it would be salable. But of course once that science was in place, why not make all corn sweeter and able to hold onto that sweetness longer? And how sweet was sweet enough?

Fussell sums it up neatly. Americans' palates have become so accustomed to, so desirous of, all things sweet, that this corn quickly and easily supplanted all other varieties to the point of near extinction. You can still find some of the old seed varieties through Seed Savers Exchange, but once you get those seeds you’d better have a nice plot of land out back in which to grow them. You can ask your local farmer to plant one of the older varieties that your grandparents or parents ate, like Golden Bantam, but the answer will probably be no, because commerce has spoken, and sweet sells.

Health-wise, what does this mean? It means that corn is simply one more item in our food chain that is contributing to our insatiable craving for sweeter and sweeter foods. The fact is that with the mutation of foods like corn and tomatoes (not to mention packaged goods like breakfast cereals), the American palate has been mutated as well. Things that aren’t sweet no longer taste good to us, and we’re looking for intense sweetness even in things like our vegetables. With obesity and diabetes skyrocketing, those innocent ears of corn become just one more nail in the coffin.

Our country is very young. We have grown up under the auspices of an industrial food chain that is one and a half centuries old. And in that time, everything we eat has been gravitating toward a common denominator area of the palate—things that had a hint of sweetness now are overwhelmingly sweet, our desire for salt is off the charts, the craving for fat is drug-like.

This has been happening for a while, but Fussell points out that in the past 20 years, it has all escalated dramatically. Technology is at the heart of this—bioengineering is accelerating at a breakneck pace, and the scale of what we’re manipulating is much, much bigger. There are thousands and thousands of foods in the world, with many distinct flavors, tastes, and nuances. As a culture, we’re getting less and less interested in them. With the presence of Flavor Blasted Doritos and Cocoa Puffs on the shelf, is it any wonder that subtly flavored con isn’t on the bestseller list?

Here in the U.S., corn is basically two things: a food—something to eat in the summer, buy canned in the winter—and its byproducts, such as high fructose corn syrup and corn starch. Agriculturally, it’s mostly a source of food for livestock and a key element in our petroleum chain. In Mexico, it’s the center of food culture. And we’ve screwed this up. Without delving too deeply into the politics, the elimination of tariffs on imported corn from the U.S. has resulted in a flood of corn entering Mexico from the States at lower prices, because we farm in a much more industrialized manner. This has shut down a significant number of independent corn farms in Mexico, and therefore has eliminated a big chunk of the non über-sweet corn being farmed in the world. And of course we have also now generously introduced super-sweet corn to the Mexicans. Says Fussell: “We can destroy in five minutes what has taken generations to build.”

So now what? Fussell says consumers should still talk to farmers at the market about what kind of corn they are growing and whether they would consider growing one of the older, less-sweet varieties. As for the bigger picture, “At least people are paying attention to people like Michael Pollan. The subject is in popular consciousness.” Any turnaround will be very slow, of course, but this is an extraordinary moment in our food evolution, she says. Fussell loves Frank Rich’s recent article in The New York Times about Mad Men, in which he theorizes that the show is a sensation because, as in 1960, we are now immersed in a moment of fear, sitting on the cork of a Champagne bottle, and things are about to explode but we don’t know in which direction. In terms of what we produce and what we eat, how it shakes out will depend on how much people decide they care what is real.

Are you waiting to see how I am going to transition back to summer corn and how to cook it? So am I. Let’s just say that Fussell is too smart and opinionated to have a simple conversation about why corn is sweeter without heading into the land of NAFTA and the political culture of the 1960s. But I have to know: Where does she buy her corn?

New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket, she says. And does she have those conversations with the farmers at the stand where she buys her corn? The older farmer she used to buy from has retired, she says, and the people selling there now are not native English speakers, nor do they know what seeds were used, so the conversation doesn’t go very far. But she does still get her corn there. And, yes, it’s very sweet. How does she prepare it? Fussell is taking the if-you-can’t-lick-them-join-them approach and is utilizing the corn in savory dishes that have flavors to play against the sugar. She makes salads with bitter greens and includes some of the corn, or incorporates Mexican chilies into her corn dishes and uses onions to cut the sweetness. And she points out that our markets are filled with new imported foods—like a variety of chilies—that weren’t there 10 or 20 years ago. We can use these new ingredients to balance out our own horribly bland palates.

The takeaway: We are going to have to take care to ensure that we don’t end up like the characters in Wall-E thanks to the relentless speed of progress in our food chain. Meanwhile, I am going to take Fussell’s advice and put that corn to good use in unexpected ways. A little sweetness never hurt anyone.

Chili and Lime Corn
by Terry Golson

Jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, and lime do a lot to offset the sweetness.

Nearly Instant Thai Coconut Corn Soup
by Nava Atlas

This soup is speedy, taking only about 15 minutes from start to finish, yet it tastes like a long-simmering soup. The tiny bit of red curry gives it ample heat; if you’d like a spicier soup, use more.

Corn, Cilantro, and Arugula Salad with Yogurt Dressing
by Deborah Szekely and Deborah Schneider

Here, the combination of cilantro in two forms—fresh green leaves and crushed seeds (called coriander), which have a distinct flavor of their own—is a perfect example of how to layer dimensions of taste. This colorful salad is a burst of Mexican tastes using lots of summer stars: barely cooked sweet corn, waves of dark green, peppery arugula leaves, and a tangy, creamy dressing.

Chicken, Sweet Corn, and Red Pepper Crêpes
by Lou Seibert Pappas

These crêpes have a lot going on. If you haven’t tried crêpes, do try them, at least once. You can make pancakes, right? These are just thinner, and then there’s the fun of rolling them.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Katie Workman is the editor in chief and chief marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.