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The Conundrum Of Corn
It’s our most important, profitable, and adaptable crop—the true American staple. But where did it come from?
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Although Smith ordered the settlers to harvest and store their first corn crops carefully, he discovered that some of the inhabitants, none of the best husbands,” simply picked their ears and threw them unhusked on the floor. But “the good husbands” husked it and “with much labor” hung it up—where, Smith reported, the weevils ate most of the corn while touching “not a grain” of the others. The moral of this perverse grasshopper and ant story, said Smith, was that the best way to preserve corn was to let it “lie in the husk, and spare an infinite labor that formerly had been used.”
Up in New England, a few days after the Pilgrims had landed, Miles Standish led a party out in search of food. Near some stubble, they found, as William Bradford chronicled it, “heaps of sand newly paddled with their hands which they, digging up found in them corns of diverse colors which seemed to them a very goodly sight having never have seen such before. They returned to the ship and … carried with them the fruits of the land and showed them to their brethren of which they were marvellously glad.”
That winter Squanto came to help bury the Pilgrims’ dead and then teach them how to plant corn. A Patuxent Indian who had been picked up by a British ship and had learned to speak English in London, he had been returned to Cape Cod. “A special instrument of God,” Bradford called him, “who directed them how to set their corn” and told them that “except they got fish and set with it, it would come to nothing. ” The settlers buried a fish in each hill of corn and, when their wheat and peas failed, the twenty acres of corn kept them alive.
Corn was far more suitable for them than wheat. It grew more reliably, yielded more grain. Its harvest was conveniently spread out and it did not have to be carted to a mill to be ground into flour. The Pilgrims planted it the Indian way, four or five seeds in well-spaced hills, and stored it as the Indians did, in clay-lined baskets buried in the ground. They picked a few early ears to eat as sweet corn but dried the rest, for porridge or bread. As whites went west, they found different recipes. Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Mandan Indians fed him a dish “of pumpkins, beans, corns, chokecherries all boiled together and forming a composition by no means unpalatable.” Other explorers found it hard to stomach the Omahas’ ta-she-ba, corn boiled with buffalo intestines, but one of them, the aristocratic Prince Maximilian of Wied, declared that corn “cooked with bear’s flesh was beyond comparison, delicious.”
In the West corn was grown on a relatively large scale, with the growers selecting the best seed and getting good yields of twenty bushels per acre. This is not surprising, because over the centuries the Indians had developed strains of corn whose productivity still impresses growers today. The hemispheres had been a huge botanical laboratory where patient farmers worked with one of the most supple genetic tools known to man. Because corn crossbreeds so readily and its genetic make-up changes so frequently through mutation, the Indians were presented, generation after generation, with new varieties that were tested, willy-nilly, under all conditions. Keeping the seeds they found best for their own particular use or taste, they slowly improved the breed. Cortez counted at least twenty different varieties of corn on his march inland. Mexicans, who softened their corn in lye water and ground it for tortillas, aimed for firm corn that would not get mushy. In Peru, where kernels were eaten whole, boiled or parched, the goal was larger, softer kernels. Families regarded collecting corn seed as a sacred duty. Their careful selection kept strains astonishingly uncontaminated—no test plot today could keep them purer.
It was simpler for farmers to do this with corn than with other crops. Wheat or barley, for example, were sown broadcast and harvested wholesale with a sickle. Corn was planted seed by seed, tended and picked plant by plant. The farmer could see how every plant grew and give the best of them special attention. Present-day scientists also acknowledge the importance of a factor that rarely gets into modern appraisals: the respect and even affection an Indian farmer showed for his corn.