Sheldon Farms Field Corn
In an article written for San Francisco Magazine, Chef/Author Daniel Patterson laments that "The corn that we eat in its natural state has lost its distinctive
flavor, echoing America’s drift toward sweet, one-dimensional tastes." He continues to say, "The corn I remember from my youth was markedly different from what’s grown today." Patterson attributes this to farmers growing corn for a market that only seems to value sweetness, leaving the product one dimensional. The rise of "supersweet" hybrids and the decline of open pollination appear to be the principle reasons for the apparent unidimensionality of corn flavor. According to Patricia Sheldon of Sheldon Farms in Washington County, the reason that the supersweet hybrids were developed was to maintain the sweetness of industrial farm grown corn from places like Florida as the corn was transported and distributed elsewhere in the country. Many farms, including ones just selling locally took to those hybrids thinking that if sweet corn is good, "supersweet" must be even better. In addition to the lack of depth of corn flavor, according to Sheldon, the "supersweet" hybrids tend to have a mealy texture, owing to the high sugar content. She states, that though they use hybrids and no longer open pollinate at Sheldon Farms, they do not use "supersweet" varieties. Instead they use a number of different hybrids, which I will attest, still provide great corn flavor and crisp texture in addition to some requisite sweetness.
The photo of the field above is of field corn, grown to feed animals. In addition to being less sweet that corn grown for human consumption in the U.S., it is grown later in the season, is hardier, taller and designed for the entire plant to be harvested and used for feed. Of course, corn as animal feed has its own issues, but I will not get in to them here.
It is too bad that the state of sweet corn in the nation has generally come to this. Patterson has decided that since he cannot find the corn of his youth, he will not use it.
"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. "
While I share Patterson's observation and general lament, i am happy that I am still able to find at least some corn here in N.Y. state that still has depth of flavor and the texture that I have always associated with corn. Summer is still a time where I and others can still look forward to fresh, loal, in-season corn with character.