Why don’t we just haul off and give corn its deserved credit?
For many centuries, Native American groups relied on corn — maize — for food and so many other uses. They introduced corn to the early colonists, who made it an important part of their own lives.
Native American cultures long ago cultivated what they referred to as “three sisters,” which consisted of corn, beans and squash planted together. Corn was the tallest of the “sisters” and provided support for beans, which climbed and intertwined around the steady corn stalk; squash provided mulch and shade near the ground, controlled weeds and scared raccoons away with its prickly leaves.
Beans pulled nitrogen from the air and nourished the corn and squash. Each sister provided nutrients that the others needed, but corn was the anchor of this perfect, natural, nourishing relationship.
Most of the time we see corn planted in beautiful rows, many fields of it around the countryside: green in summer and brown in fall.
In my youth, children loved the corn fields. They were great places to hide and play, even though we had to be careful not to get cut on its sharp leaves.
We eventually learned that each stalk produced only one or two ears and that ears were ready to pull when the silk had started to turn brown.
We learned much later that that each kernel was connected to its own silk. Corn, like all plants, is a complicated and precise product of nature.
As children, we would sometimes see an ear of corn here and there that had blight, and we learned to avoid ears that had this disease.
We also occasionally saw a few kernels that had popped right there in the field. We did not see it much, but the heat and humidity would sometimes cause a few kernels to pop right there on the ear. A little salt and butter would have been welcomed.
Corn, of course, was and still is used for food in ways too numerous to count. What is summer without corn on the cob, creamed corn and a homemade corn pudding?
We children learned to pull corn, shuck it, remove silks, cut it off the cob and then scrape the cob, freeze it in little bags or boxes and help get it ready to take to the Frozen Food Lockers on Green Street. When we got our own home freezer, we froze some of it on the cob and some off, and the freezer smelled like corn for several days afterward.
Many families canned corn and were well stocked for winter.
The South has long been famous for its love of hominy and our beloved grits, both products of corn. Someone once said that one definition of a Southerner is a person who starts to salivate at the mention of grits and red-eye gravy prepared by someone who can really cook grits and red-eye gravy. You know what I mean.
We enjoyed going to corn shuckings in the fall, where neighbors got together and helped each other shuck the dried corn. The shucked corn was stored in the corn crib for winter food for the farm animals. Some people said that many corn cribs had a resident snake who took care of the resident rats, although I never saw either in the corn crib.
Most of us have images of hand corn grinders, mortar and pestles and gristmills that prepared corn for food for animals and people.
Cornbread deserves its own attention. Each family boasts of the quality of its own cornbread, which is better than that of any other family. Fried or baked, it is still a requirement of many country meals.
My father loved what he called “sweet crumb-in,” baked cornbread which was crumbled into a bowl, mixed with sweet milk and eaten as a kind of dessert at some meals. Yummy!
Let us not forget the countless ways corn is used to make products other than food: cosmetics, toothpaste, soap, fuel, waxed paper, matches, etc.
Cornflowers take one’s breath away, and the popular cornrow hairstyles remind us of corn.
I have had my hair styled in cornrows twice, one time in Jamaica and another in St. Thomas, and I thought of cornfields each time I looked at myself in the mirror.
Recently, I saw pictures of “the most beautiful corn in the world.” The ears flashed an impressive array of kernel color: variegated white, yellow, brown, red, green, violet, blue and almost any color you can imagine. Look it up. You will be impressed at what corn can do to advertise its beauty.
I keep thinking about the charming “three sisters,” which conjures up memories of the three sisters in my own family. I was not the corn but the one who scared the raccoons away.
And to whom do we owe the blessings of corn? Why, the Native Americans and the farmers who keep corn alive and well in our culture. Thank you! Thank you!
Thanks to them, the blessings of corn are everywhere.