Heirloom Corn; Free from Genetic Tampering and Tasty as Well
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s one of the signs that summer was morphing into autumn would be the appearance of brightly colored “Indian corn” on the fronts of doorways or bound together on the stalk as an ornamentation for mailboxes or used in a number of similar seasonal displays. The brightly colored kernels, so different from anything ever found on the dinner table always caused comment and speculation on what it might taste like.
Generally the reply was something along the lines of, “Oh that is just for decoration you can’t eat it.”
Not true, as it turns out because this is exactly the type of corn that the Native Americans and early settlers in turn raised and ground for corn meal and flour and from which cornbread, corn muffins, corncakes and fritters and in fact anything that can be made from corn was produced. Today it is true that the primary function of colorful heirloom corn is decorative, but there is no inherent reason why it should be forgotten as a viable food source.
This ferocious sounding corn, blood red with a mixture of deep blue kernels has a legend all of its own regarding its origin. According to the folks at “The Farm 2U Collaborative” back in the early 1800’s a young settler named Betsy Gibson was spirited away by members of the Pottawatomie tribe. It was a year before young Betsey could make her escape and when she did so; she brought with her seeds of the corn favored by the tribe. Grown with the corn in use by the settlers the resulting cross is what we call Bloody Butcher corn today.
The unusual 8” to 12” ears make excellent corn meal and flour, and when the ears are young are tasty and eye catching as corn on the cob.
Black or Black Aztec corn
So deep a blue as to appear black this corn, as the name suggests is of pre Columbian origins and has been grown at times all over South and Central America and as far north as lower Canada. Can be eaten fresh is the young stages or dried and preserved for grinding into flour or meal. A late variety, black corn can be planted along with extra sweet short season hybrids without undue worry about cross pollination.
Black corn is also used to brew a variety of beverages, some fermented and some, like chicha mora, not. Both drinks are of Peruvian origin and both have their fans. There are so many uses for heirloom corn once one begins to dig into the topic.
Hopi Pink and Blue corn
From the southwest come these two fine heirloom varieties, both well adapted to relatively dry conditions. Hopi blue is extremely versatile and can be eaten fresh as sweet corn or corn on the cob or dried as flour or corn meal. It is a traditional tortilla component and is also used to make a porridge where the peculiarly nut like flavor of this corn makes this dish particularly satisfying.
Hopi pink is an attractive corn best utilized as flour with long lasting flavor and unusually high protein content. Unlike many corn varieties Hopi pink sends a sturdy taproot deep into the soil, helping it to find water where many other corn varieties would struggle, while anchoring it against wind.
Cherokee long ear corn
Cherokee long ear corn ripens into a rainbow of colors, from white to blue black and every tint and shade in between. It is also versatile as are most heirloom varieties with the additional note that it makes excellent popcorn; the smallish kernels expand beyond what one would expect to make a satisfying and uniquely flavorful snack. Cherokee long ear grows easily wherever other corn crops can be grown on convenient 8’ tall stalks.
And of course, it is extremely decorative as well.
Not just a novelty
We have seen that heirloom corn varieties are more than mere ornamental seasonal accessories; they are also tasty food sources as well. But there is more to it than that. Modern hybrid sweet corn is bred to produce attractive, consistently tender ears with high sugar content. Fresh from the pot it makes a delicious side dish as corn on the cob, there is no denying it.
But the nutritional value of these hybrids is questionable at best; heirloom varieties contain as much as 50 percent more protein value than do their more “synthetic” cousins, present a broader range of minerals and in the case of the purple corn varieties, a high level of anti-oxidants, a benefit which is not generally associated with corn.
Heirloom varieties will also breed true to type and can be saved in the home gardener’s personal seed bank, a futile endeavor with the hybrid varieties. Perhaps this is the year to give Cherokee Long Ear or Bloody Butcher corn a corner in your home garden, and find out what you have been missing all these years.