I used to be that skinny kid who could polish off six ears of sweet corn and still eat my salad (and chicken leg and broccoli and fruit). It was so juicy and delicious on its own that I rarely used butter and salt.
But as I grew older, corn seemed to change. Gone were the farmers on the side of the road selling brown paper bags of fresh sweet corn for a buck. Instead, it was dumped into supermarkets—sometimes even during the winter moldering on a foam tray under plastic wrap. Call it mass production or GMOs or shelf-stable hybrids, corn became a chewy and strangely bitter-tasting disappointment. Frozen and canned corn were the same. Every now and then, I’d give corn another try but honestly, it was like eating a chocolate chip cookie with all of the chocolate chips removed.
So what did I do in the interim years? Those almost brokenhearted no corn years. How did I go so long without getting my fix?
Two words: popcorn and cornbread.
When I was 13 years old, my mom and I didn't have a lot of money. Three times a week, we ate popcorn for dinner...and I was in heaven! I loved it. It was crunchy, salty, and filled me up. To this day, I still eat popcorn for dinner. I have an air popper from 1988 that still works. A lot of people find air-popped corn tasteless and dry but when I add some melted butter and seasoning salt (my mom’s trick) or sea salt and melted bittersweet chocolate, there is nothing more than I want in the moment.
Unless it’s cornbread. Well, if you want to get technical, Johnnycake. True cornbread—according to my stepfather from Arkansas and backed up by own research—does not contain sugar. Johnnycake does—just a small amount of sugar in the batter transforms the bread into something special. A piece of Johnnycake still warm and slathered in butter: there is nothing more than I want in the moment.
But then it happened: the popcorn and cornmeal began to taste off. I cannot describe it other than to say that something was wrong. They went from being natural foods to designed ones. Worse, they started to make me physically sick. Without getting too graphic—this is a food blog, after all—whether I ate homemade, microwave or movie theater popcorn, my system couldn’t hold it for too long. The same with Johnnycake. For some reason, tortilla chips were okay. But grits? The worst experience I ever had with corn was grits and a food poisoning so immediate and violent, I prayed for death in the restaurant bathroom.
Corn became an ex-boyfriend: it still looked good but letting it back into my life meant I was going to get hurt. Again.
Then came Italy seducing me with its clean food. “Bella, bella,” it whispered, “Go ahead, try this first.” Italy offered me a piece of cheese. One bite, two bites, a meal later, and I realized that while I was lactose-intolerant in the States, I wasn’t that way in Italy. I wasn’t sick! I suddenly trusted Italy. Dare I hope? I lowered my eyes coyly. Could I possibly try corn again?
Yes. Yes, I could. While I did fall in love with a corn, cranberry bean, and frisée salad (see my recipe), Italy didn’t actually do much with sweet corn. Where it excelled, however, was polenta. You can call it cornmeal mush if you want. But if done well—and all it takes is a little bit of time to do it well—polenta is sexy food. Topped with mushrooms and a fontina cheese sauce? Mm-mm! A cascade of calamari cooked with hot peppers, garlic, and lemon dribbling down? Oh, my! Spread into a buttered pan, sliced, baked with cheese, and eaten with fingers instead of a fork? Is it getting hot in here?
Thanks to Italy, corn and I reconciled.
The honeymoon was short-lived. When I returned to the States in 2002, corn and I began arguing again.
Turns out, corn was arguing with a lot of people. And Americans stood up to corn.
Corn itself became divided. Some corn refused to change its tune; it didn’t care if it hurt the people eating it. But the other corn? It recognized its damaging ways. It stood up and declared, “I refuse to be modified! I refuse to hurt one more digestive system! I am corn and I CAN be eaten!”
Yes, it can!
I can eat corn now…provided it’s the right corn for me. Organic corn—not genetically modified—does not affect me adversely. While people debate organic versus conventionally-grown foods or genetically modified foods versus those that are not, I can only go by own experiences in my body. My beautifully sensitive body rejects foods that are not good for me and thrives on the foods that are. Every time I feed it organic sweet corn, cornmeal, and popcorn, my body is dancing. And the rare occasion I let in an impostor—like the theater popcorn T. Rex and I shared a few months ago—my body screams at my betrayal.
Like most organic foods, organic corn in all forms is more expensive, although the price does seem to be going down. For me, the additional cost is worth it. But if your body reacts well to conventional corn, then buy what you prefer.
And then, revisit this blog. Dare I say it? We’re about to get corny in here!
Stay tuned for recipes featuring corn!