Corn is far more American than even apple pie

Its presence is a necessary accoutrement to all our summertime activities — saluting a flag, watching baseball, drinking beer, sweating at a fair.
Illustration of a sign for fresh picked corn.
The glowing yellow nubbins, if we are being truly honest, are just vehicles for butter.George Wylesol / for NBC News
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By Lyz Lenz

Every summer for the past decade, I have gone to the St. Jude’s Sweet Corn Festival in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I go early, dragging my kids with me, promising them rides and cotton candy.

No matter how early we go, it’s always hot, with humid air that wraps around you like a heavy blanket, the kind that you’ll need in a couple more months when the temperatures are subzero. But not during the corn festival, which is all bare arms and flip flops, hair curling from sweat at 10 a.m.

My kids ride the precarious, ratchety carnival rides and, like a good cheap, Midwesterner, I scoff at the midway games as a waste of money. But we are just biding our time until we can sit and eat the glistening soft yellow corn.

The first bite of any sweet corn has a crisp pop as dozens of tiny starchy kernels burst against your teeth while butter lines your lips

Corn is everywhere in Iowa, from planting in May through October. It’s in our fields, at our fairs. It lines our roads, rises up from our backyards. It’s the green curtain that shrouds the ghostly baseball players in “Field of Dreams,” in which it’s the backdrop when Ray Liotta, as Shoeless Joe Jackson, asks Kevin Costner, “Is this heaven?”

“No, it’s Iowa,” Costner shouts back.

Once in July, at the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa, I burst through the wall of corn like the Kool-Aid man, and a man shouted, “Is this heaven?”

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“Nah!” I shouted back, “It’s a s---ton of corn.”

Mr. Shucks is the mascot for the local baseball team, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. A beloved figure in town, Mr. Shucks, a corn cob, pops his corn booty in the stands. His red hat is velcroed on, coming off only to show respect for the American flag and anthem. Children run to him and kiss him. I am a little scared of him to be honest. He’s very aggressive in a Midwestern way — he’s no Gritty, but he insists on waving a lot and giving people hugs. He’s the Joe Biden of corn.

In 2003, the writer Michael Pollan noted that the entire diet of America “has been colonized by this one plant.” In 2007, Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, had his hair tested and discovered that 69 percent of the carbon came from corn. This is because proteins and fats in our food meld themselves into our bodies. “If we are what we eat,” Gupta concluded, “Americans are corn.” It's the second most popular vegetable in the U.S. (according to a national survey by Green Giant), and the average American consumed 6.75 pounds of fresh sweet corn last year.

At my son’s preschool class field trip this year to the county fairgrounds, there was a giant RV emblazoned with “CORN: It’s everything.” Inside, children saw an entire display of all that is corn — diapers, chips, soaps, paints, wallpaper candles. My son and his friend, both 5 years old, looked around and immediately declared that corn is “berry scary.” And then they hauled themselves on out, turning down the “I love corn” stickers foisted on them by an enthusiastic employee of Team Corn.

But when we think of corn, we don’t think of the corn that has grafted itself into our consumer products, starches and dyes — we think of sweet corn. We think of the glowing yellow nubbins that, if we are being truly honest, are just vehicles for butter. Sweet corn, though, is only 1 percent of the corn that Americans actually grow and consume.

And, it is a genetic mutation of the majority of corn that you see in the field. Writing in the Iowa State College Journal of Science in 1941, A.T. Erwin snidely said of sweet corn, “The sugary character of the sweet corn endosperm is due to the inability of the plant to complete the formation of normal corn starch or, as has been expressed tersely, sweet corn is field corn in an arrested state of development.”

Still, it has been around for centuries, a genetic ancestor of corn from the cultivated fields of pre-Columbian South America. The first recorded sweet corn called “Papoon” was given to desperate white explorers by the Iroquois in 1779; this food kept them alive. Corn was the poor person’s food for years; it kept slaves alive on slave ships and was given to prisoners in jail. But with the invention of the plow, trains and eventually the mutant hybrid strains created in a lab, this cheap, easy-to-grow plant was colonized, hybridized and bastardized into hundreds of varieties and grafted its way into our diets and our bodies.

The varietals of sweet corn read like drug-store lipstick brands — alluring and garish: Sugar Baby, Temptation, Luscious, Ambrosia, Precious Gem, Peaches and Cream.

I know a family that grows Honey and Cream sweet corn. Every year, they pick and preserve the corn, boiling and cutting the kernels, and freezing them in large bags. They eat this corn all winter, chipping off sections from the freezer bag and warming them on the stove. During harvest there is a discussion about the corn, whether it is better or worse than in previous years. It involves sniffing the cob, licking it, holding a stick of butter up to it and rubbing it repeatedly up and down the rows of kernels (no salt), sniffing again and then biting. This wasn’t as good as the corn of 2007, but better than 2016. In 2008, the year of the Iowa floods, there wasn’t even corn; the ground didn’t dry soon enough to get Honey and Cream planted.

The first bite of any sweet corn has a crisp pop as dozens of tiny starchy kernels burst against your teeth while butter lines your lips. Some people coat their corn in cheese and mayonnaise, powdering on spices and heat. Once I made grilled sweet corn with parmesan and garlic rub. But you can grill, bake, boil, even (God forbid) microwave it. Sweet corn doesn’t need you to tart it up. It’s fine on its own with just some butter, maybe salt — pepper if you are wild.

Growing up, my mom taught us to butter our corn by putting a slab of butter on soft white bread and rolling the hot corn in the bread. I’ve seen people roll the corn on a stick of butter and pour melted butter on top; one friend of mine used fake butter spray (and there is a reason I don’t speak to him anymore). You can use your hands to hold it, fussy corn holders, the husk, a paper towel; at the Iowa State Fair they put it on a stick.

Sweet corn is now the cheery yellow phallus we heat and butter up every summer, alongside hot dogs, hamburgers and salads of dubious mayonnaise bases. Its presence is a necessary accoutrement to our summertime activities — saluting a flag, watching baseball, drinking beer, being forced to hug a mascot, sweating at a fair.

Cheap and adaptable, processed and mutated, corn has become more a projection of our desires, tastes, attitudes and science than actual plant. Sweet corn is, for better or for worse, grafted into our American DNA.