Kernels of history

In a 1787 letter posted from Paris, where he was serving as a diplomat, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, unable to find corn in Europe, he had devoted his garden to a crop of corn, to be eaten on the cob, boiled, with salt. Whether Jefferson wished to impress his French friends with a unique American dish or whether he was merely homesick for traditional summer fare of Virginia, he does not say.

Corn had been grown in North America for millenniums before Europeans arrived, and distinct races of corn had been selected for particular uses: corn meal, hominy, popcorn, corn beer and corn on the cob. With the settling of the continent, corn breeding gained momentum, and now corn is primarily an industrial crop, providing ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup. But corn on the cob is still an iconic national food, to be eaten on the Fourth of July along with fried chicken and pie.

About a century ago, the traditional name for corn on the cob — “green corn” — (referring to its lack of ripeness rather than its color), was replaced by “sweet corn.” The new name wasn’t just a marketing gimmick. Corn breeders have more than doubled the sugar content of corn in recent decades. They’ve done this by two routes: High-fructose corn has an odd, fruity flavor and a long shelf life, while high-sucrose corn is sweeter but more perishable. Either way, Jefferson would have been astonished by the sweetness of modern, high-sugar corn but also by its tastelessness. In plant breeding, increased sugar content almost always has to be paid for by decreased flavor.

Sweet corn is a thirsty crop, and whether a farmer can make a profit from it depends on how much he pays for water. On my farm, water is expensive, so I don’t grow sweet corn to sell, although I grow a patch for myself. As long as the plants are well irrigated, they grow rapidly and splendidly, and 60 days after poking a shriveled kernel into the ground I have a tall, handsome plant bearing its ears, ready to eat.


If you want to experience the sort of corn that Jefferson was craving in Paris, you will have to seek out old varieties such as Golden Bantam and Trucker’s Delight.’ You won’t find these in the supermarket, but a few seed companies still carry the seeds, and you can grow your own. Try grilling the freshly picked ears with their green husks left on, and when they’re ready, peel back the husks, and sprinkle on some salt (no butter). Mr. Jefferson would approve.

Mike Madison operates a family farm in the Sacramento Valley.