An Ingredient’s Tale: Corn!

by Erin Cabana.

Corn. When you think of it, perhaps images of corn on the cob (Dripping with butter, of course!) drift across your mind, or perhaps dreams of fluffy white corn popped over an open camp fire dance across your memory. It’s hard to imagine a summer in New England without locally grown corn on the cob, or a fall without cornbread or a fall/winter celebration without cornbread stuffing, or even a trip to the apple orchard without a run through a corn maze. What would a summer or fall be without this quintessential ingredient?

Corn on cob with butter

Believe it or not, corn is a relative newcomer to our culinary plate. The Western European world didn’t come into contact with this new world favorite until the end of the 15th century. At first, corn meant any grain grown for either human or animal consumption; it could refer to barley, rye, oats or wheat[1]. In many European countries, such as the UK and Spain, corn is referred to as Maize and other cereal grains are still referred to as corn[2]. It is unknown whether corn was brought back to Europe on either the first voyage of Christopher Columbus or the second, but bring it back he did.[3] At first it was only used as a decorative garden grass in the pleasure gardens, but eventually it spread from Europe to the rest of the world- China, the Philippines and the East Indies.

Glass gem corn

Glass gem corn

However, it’s not until the colonists reach the Americas, most notably what would come to be called New England, that corn becomes a dietary staple for Europeans. It had, of course, been a dietary staple of the Native American tribes (both in North and South America) for at least several thousands of years, well before the Vikings ever invaded Europe, never mind before Pilgrims even dreamed of stepping upon the rock at Plymouth. They ate it at every meal, either fresh or cooked from a preserved form; it formed the majority of the carbohydrate calories of their diet.[4]

Erin Cabana works full time at a biopharmaceutical company in town. When not ordering chemicals for her team, she spends her time knitting, practicing yoga, gardening and researching both ancient and medieval foods. She can be found wandering the Plymouth farmer’s market looking for ingredients to use in her translations of recipes from Ancient to Modern or poking around Plymouth plantation asking about their heirloom varieties of vegetables and animals.

[1]  M-W Dictionary Online “Corn.” Merriam Webster Dictionary Web. 3 September 2013  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/corn

[2] Wikipedia “Corn” Wikipedia  3 September 2013  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn

[3] Gibson,Lance and Garren Benson “ Origin, History and Use of Corn” Iowa State University  3 September 2013  http://agron-www.agron.iastate.edu/Courses/agron212/readings/corn_history.htm

[4] Prindle, Tara. “Native American History of Corn”. 04 September 2013 http://www.nativetech.org/cornhusk/cornhusk.html

About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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