Corn, once considered a wholesome vegetable that brought to mind the long, lazy days of summer, has become a popular scapegoat for the foodie do-gooder set. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s incendiary exposé of commodity corn’s role in processed food, sparked a chain reaction of impassioned documentaries and op-ed pieces. But missing from the diatribes about farm subsidies and high-fructose corn syrup is an equally disturbing development: The corn that we eat in its natural state has lost its distinctive flavor, echoing America’s drift toward sweet, one-dimensional tastes.
Modern corn offers a rare opportunity to utter the phrase “It was better when I was a kid” with a straight face. The corn I remember from my youth was markedly different from what’s grown today. As Andrew Brait, of Guinda’s Full Belly Farm, explains, corn is pollinated in a way that makes it easy for species to cross strains—one reason why it’s the most hybridized plant on the planet. There was a time when all corn was open-pollinated, which meant that farmers could save their seeds from one year to the next, selecting varieties based on their flavor and their ability to thrive in a particular place. When seed companies began to introduce sweeter, higher-yielding varieties in the mid–20th century, the old strains gradually fell away and were replaced by patented hybrids.
Now, most corn farmers grow one of the supersweet varieties. The sugar bomb of vegetables, it becomes even sweeter after it’s picked and stored. Full Belly Farm used to grow Silverado, a replacement for the now heirloom Silver Queen, until the seed was discontinued 12 years ago owing to lack of demand—it wasn’t sweet enough. The same fate befell Sweet Scarlet, a red-kerneled variety that did not sufficiently live up to its billing. This year, Brait has given up and planted a supersweet variety, like everyone else.
“I like corn,” says Jeremy Fox, executive chef of Ubuntu, in Napa, which puts him firmly in the majority. Everyone, it seems, likes corn. Fox, who spent summers in Philadelphia when he was a kid, fondly remembers—as I do—the amazing corn grown on the East Coast. Here, he cooks with yellow corn, noting that “anything you put on the menu with corn is going to sell.” One of Fox’s signature dishes uses the natural starch in corn juice to make a pudding that he folds into grits, along with smoked or blackened corn, for a luscious vegan dish (not descriptors typically used in conjunction).
The sweetest local corn—or the best, if that’s the sole measuring stick—comes from Brentwood. It’s grown mostly in synthetic, fertilizer-enhanced soil and sprayed with synthetic pesticides. It’s fine, if you like that sort of thing, but I’m more partial to the white corn grown by Catalán Family Farmin Hollister, or anything from Full Belly Farm. Though both offer only supersweet, at least it’s organic. As Brait points out, though, it’s questionable whether growing a giant, thirsty grass in a drought zone is such a great idea to begin with.
Over the years, I’ve made corn-juice glazes, corn meringues, sautés of corn and chanterelles, corn-and-basil salads, and corn-and-tomato combinations of all kinds, but nothing has ever thrilled me the way steamed and buttered corn on the cob did in my childhood. Corn today is so sweet that it overpowers or undermines everything it accompanies, while lacking one key component: corn flavor.
This year, I’m throwing in the towel: No more corn on the menu. I’m tired of trying to create a balanced dish with an ingredient that tastes like it’s been impregnated with simple syrup. And I’m disgusted that the industrial seed companies bet—correctly, as it turns out—on Americans’ appetite for sweet, monolithic flavors with no subtlety, in the process ruining an extraordinary vegetable.
Unsurprisingly, corn has found a comfortable home on local dessert menus. I particularly love the delicious corn-infused take on French toast created by Nicole Krasinski, the pastry chef at Rubicon before it closed last year. I made it for breakfast recently and fed it to my son, all the while telling him how much better corn was when I was growing up.