Corn on the cob: A history

Along with your next perfect ear of summer corn, we thought you might like to learn something about the vegetable we Americans can't seem to get enough of.

A little history

The word "corn" comes from the Old English via Old Norse korn, meaning "grain." In most of the world, "corn" simply means the cereal crop most dominant in a region and can refer to any number of grains such as rye, wheat or oats. In the United States, what is known as corn was first called Indian corn; the adjective was commonly dropped by the early 1800s. (Although if you search "Indian corn" on the Internet, you'll notice that today the term refers to those dried multicolored cobs hanging around at Thanksgiving.) In practically every country but the United States, corn is called maize, coming from the Spanish maiz via the Taino mahiz.

Corn is the ancient grain of the New World. It was first cultivated 9,000 years ago in present-day southern Mexico and Central America.

After the American Revolution, as settlers moved west into the Ohio River Valley, the Northerners brought with them their Northern Flint, while the Southerners brought Southern Dent. A cross of the two produced Corn Belt Dent, the ancestor of almost all corn grown in the United States today.

In a study published in 2009, scientists pinpointed the wild ancestor of corn as a subspecies of teosinte, Zea mays ssp. parviglumis, native to the Central Balsas watershed in southwestern Mexico. (In other words, a type of grass that bears almost no resemblance to what we know as corn today.)

In the mid-1800s, when coffee was scarce or too expensive, thrifty Americans in the South would use, among other things, parched corn as a coffee substitute. At the same time, the ashes of burned corncobs acted as a substitute for hard-to-come-by baking soda and other leavening agents.

Federal regulations state that bourbon must be made of at least 51 percent corn.

Chances are, the corn that you're eating (or that's in the corn-based product you're using) is one of these types:

• Dent. Named for the small indentation that forms in the kernel as it dries, dents are higher in starch and used primarily as animal food or to create industrial products (think fuel and biodegradable plastics).

• Flint. A hard variety prized for flavor, it's most often used to make polenta and corn meal.

• Flour. A soft variety not commonly found today, flour corn was most often used by Native Americans to make - surprise! - corn flour.

• Popcorn. A type of flint mainly used to make popcorn, this one has kernels that range in size from small to large and come in a variety of colors. When heated, the hard outer hull allows moisture inside to turn to steam until, with enough pressure, the kernels explode into crisp puffs.

• Sweet. This is the queen of the ball, the cream of the crop, the one corn to rule them all. Sweet corns, of which there are many hybrids, are bred to be eaten as a vegetable.

Proper ear-choosing etiquette (from our farmer friends) dictates that you shouldn't peel back the husk to check the kernels. In an ideal world, you would trust your source and know that the corn was picked at plump, sweet perfection, and you would know how to feel for plump kernels underneath the husk. In the real world, lightning will not strike you if you choose to take a peek under the husk. But ask the vendor first.

Your grandmother might have told you that corn must be eaten within hours after it's picked or else the sugars will turn to starch. That was true as many as 40 years ago, before modern Xtra Sweet hybrids that are bred to hold their sugars became the norm.

Today, corn picked within a few days can be safely stored - in the refrigerator, please - for about five days before its sugars convert. Unless you're going to eat the corn the same day, don't be tempted to shuck the corn at the market; storing corn husk-on retains moisture and keeps the kernels plump.

Worldwide, corn is the crop most used to make starch (as opposed to starch made from wheat, potatoes or tapioca).

Just plain corny

Are you familiar with the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota? Established in 1892, the site hosts a corn festival every August, with elaborate murals designed around an annual theme. If a visit to the Palace isn't in your future, you can keep up with the action through Mitchell's 24/7 Corn Cam.

Corn festivals abound in the United States, with all the food offerings, pageantry and corn-related paraphernalia you might expect. One place we didn't expect to find a corn festival: Atherton, Australia, home of the Atherton Maize Festival since 1962 and complete with a Maize Festival Queen and a "hotly contested" Corn Husking Competition.

The National Corn Growers Association has a mascot aimed at teaching children about corn; his name is Captain Cornelius, and his adventures are as corny and pun-filled as you would expect.

On the grill: Italian Corn. The Washington Post/Toni L. Sandys
Grilled Corn Four Ways. Oak and apple woods work especially well because they are mild, but other hardwoods, such as pecan and cherry, are fine. The Washington Post/Scott Suchman
Why we love corn, but Europeans don't. An essay. The Washington Post by Shimon and Tammar
Corn festivals abound in the United States, with all the food offerings, pageantry and corn-related paraphernalia like this corn maze in St. Charles. Daily Herald file photo/Laura Stoecker
Corn on the cob will be turning on grills around the suburbs this summer. For upcoming festivals, see
In defense of corn, our most indispensable crop. Corn is planted in a field in the Midwest. Illustrates FOOD-CORN-CROP (category d), by Tamar Haspel, special to The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, July 15, 2015. (MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg News photo by Daniel Acker)
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