By Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Late summer months trigger good memories of shucking corn under the shade of my parents’ sycamore. We seven kids did not consider it much of a chore to yank off the husks, pick away silks, and use butter knives to dig out the occasional worm. (Okay—maybe the worm part is not so memorable.)
That corn we shucked was sweet corn, the kind Louisiana gardeners grow in back yards and eat off the cob. To learn about field corn (dent corn), I spent time in a field with someone who’s been growing it a while.
Aside from 700 acres of sugarcane, Bryan Carroll of Batchelor in Pointe Coupee Parish has planted 500 acres of soybeans and 500 acres of field corn. He’s been farming over 40 years, and with an authoritative grin he explains that his corn is the “hard, starchy, grainy kind. It’s not the kind we eat off the cob.”
If you don’t keep up with agriculture statistics, you might be surprised to learn that over 99 percent of the 600,000 acres of commercial corn grown in Louisiana is field corn. Field corn is used to make things like soap, paper, and polymers for plastics and fabric. A full 40 percent of U.S. field corn goes to make ethanol. Over 35 percent is processed into animal food. Although we don’t typically eat it fresh, we consume field corn processed in the forms of cornmeal, corn flour, corn syrup, corn flakes, corn chips, cornstarch, and even bourbon.
Compared to sweet corn, field corn grows taller and has larger, thicker leaves. Bryan pulls a light brown ear off a stalk and peels off its husk to reveal even rows of hard, deep gold kernels. He teaches me that “field corn stays on the stalks until the ears are dry and dented.” (Hence the name “dent” corn.) The kernels on this particular ear are still smooth, but only a few weeks from the dent stage.
“Sweet corn comes from specialized hybrids,” he says. “And it’s harvested much earlier, when it’s in the milk stage and high in sugars.” While large Florida and California sweet corn farms harvest gently with specialized machines or human hands, Bryan’s ears of field corn are ripped off the stalks and stripped of kernels with the same combine he uses to cut soybeans. The only major mechanical adjustment he makes is to swap out the combine’s header.
Bryan sends his harvested crop to grain elevators in Port Allen. He says that from there it is “shipped out internationally.”
This year he is growing two hybrids, a DeKalb and a Croplan. Corn seed breeders have developed hybrids that help ease problems with the usual pests, such as weeds, insects, and those dreaded worms. But there’s another production challenge, he confesses, and it comes from furry nocturnal thieves: coyotes, black bears, and raccoons. They think corn tastes pretty good too.
And the number one bandit? Bryan’s easy smile vanishes. “Without a doubt, it’s wild hogs.” A survey of a massive patch of trampled stalks and mostly-eaten cobs reveals that he’s not kidding.
You could get lost among his acres and acres of healthy plants and their towering stalks, tassels, and leaf canopies. These rows look almost majestic. And they are certainly more impressive than their original ancestor.
Our modern, sturdy corn ears have an average 800 kernels divided among 16 rows. That’s quite a difference from what we believe is the first known corn, a tall, 5 to 12-seeded wild grass called teosinte, which looks sort of like a frail stalk of wheat.
Teosinte is indigenous to central Mexico and Central America. Archaeologists believe that about 10,000 years ago Mesoamericans selected and manipulated this grass and developed the field corn we know today. Sweet corn was a spontaneous mutation on field corn. It originated east of South America’s Andes Mountains about 1000 years ago.
Early Native Americans called corn “mahiz.” With the arrival of Columbus and the spread of corn to the world, the word morphed into “maize” — except with the English. To English-speaking colonists, the word “corn” originally meant “small particles.” So they first called corn “Indian corn,” then simply “corn.”
Today, there are four basic groups of corn: field corn, sweet corn, popcorn, and ornamental corn. Bryan is obviously a pro at growing field corn, but does he ever plant other varieties?
“Every once in a while I grow sweet corn,” he says. “But not this year.”
As it turns out, his neighbors have a bumper crop of sweet corn. Bryan has graciously offered them storage space in a spare refrigerator on his farm.
Next to his barns, combines, and tractors sits a pecan orchard, with lots of shade. By now the prolific neighbors have probably paid their storage debt in the form of sweet corn. I can’t help but wonder if Bryan’s family gathered under those pecan trees to do the shucking.
Do you have a Louisiana agriculture story or a recipe you’d like to share? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheddar and Corn Cornbread
Makes a 13x9-inch pan
This cornbread is super moist and bursting with corn flavor. If you consider jazzing it up with peppers, onions, or bacon, give the original recipe a try first. It might surprise you how good it tastes plain.
1 stick butter, melted, plus more for greasing pan
2¼ cups (12 ounces) corn muffin mix
1 (15.25-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style corn
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 large eggs
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter the insides of a 9x13-inch baking pan.
2. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until brown, about 35-45 minutes. Cool at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Skillet Corn with Sausage and Peppers
Makes 6 servings
Frozen corn tastes fine in this dish, but fresh corn off the cob makes it spectacular.
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ pound smoked sausage, cut into ½-inch slices
1½ cups chopped fresh bell peppers, or a combo of bell peppers and mild chilis
3 cups fresh corn kernels, or a 16-ounce package frozen
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon Creole seasoning
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil, and sauté the onion until just translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sausage and peppers and cook until the sausage is lightly brown, 6-7 minutes.
2. Reduce heat to medium-low and add corn, garlic, Creole seasoning, and black pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn is tender, 5-6 minutes. (A minute or 2 longer for frozen corn.) Remove from heat and let sit, covered, 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings
I’m including this recipe because it’s a side dish that just about every child will eat. For adult palates you can add peppers and spices, or serve it my favorite way, over rice and gravy. One taste and you’ll never buy the stuff in the can again.
3 cups corn scraped off the cob, or 1 (16-ounce) bag frozen corn, thawed
1½ cups milk
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons cold water
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1. In a saucepan, bring corn, milk, and sugar to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook 5 minutes. (Cook a minute or so longer for frozen corn.) Remove from heat.
2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter, then slowly stir in corn and milk mixture. Raise heat to medium. Bring to a simmer and slowly add cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until thick. (If needed, thicken with a little more cornstarch and water.) Stir in salt and pepper. Serve warm.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.