On Saturday we planted corn. I hope the crop is a success because the seed was expensive. My friend, John Bauer, is a seed salesman and he brought me a sweet corn variety he swears by. John used to farm in Massachusetts and he grew a lot of corn. Out here in California among us coastal growers more accustomed to planting broccoli, lettuce, or strawberries, he’s something of a “Johnny Corn Seed,” tramping the country and promoting the merits of Zea mays. John hauled a fifty pound sack of corn seed out of the bed of his pick-up truck by its ears and flopped it onto the barn floor. “There,” he said. “When your crew gets a taste of this sweet corn they’re going to think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
I looked at the bag of gold that lay between us. “I don’t know about that,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “This corn is like candy!”
The sun had already set and there was food on the stove in the kitchen and a bottle of wine on the table so I said, “come on in.” John and I sat down to dinner and talked about corn.
“This corn isn’t cheap,” he said, “but every seed will germinate, even in cold soil. You’re going to want to drop seed in a single row on forty inch centers with a six-inch spacing.”
That sounded easy. The way I farm, all my planting beds are forty inches wide. The axel on my tractor is set at eighty inches, so it can straddle two beds at once, and all my sowing and cultivating implements are set to accommodate those dimensions.
“Do you have a corn planter?” John asked.
John’s got that whole “Yankee ingenuity thing” going on. He thrives on building seed sleds, mechanical cultivators and other labor saving devices. I’m all thumbs. I don’t have much equipment on my farm, and since I’ve never grown a lot of corn, it’s never made sense for me to buy a special seeder. Besides, there’s my crew to think of.
“You know that ten acre piece on the south side of San Miguel Canyon Road,” I asked,” where the road leaves the valley and heads up into the hills?
Seed dealers get around. “Sure,” John said. “It’s in strawberries.”
“I farmed that ground in 1990,” I said. “Ofelio and his brother Juan worked with me then and they asked if they could grow a patch of corn at the edge of the field. Every time we irrigated the rows in that part of the field they’d put on an extra length of pipe and water their corn too.”
John could see where I was heading. “Did they grow field corn?” he asked.
“Well, Mexican corn” I said. Corn has been in cultivation a long time– between 7000 to 12,000 years according to some estimates– and archeobotanists trace its origins to the Rio Balsas in Mexico, not far from Jacona, where Ofelio and Juan grew up.
“Those two were old school,” I said. “Ofelio had a face like a toad. Juan looked like the Indian on the nickel, except that he always wore a cowboy hat, and he had a cast over his left eye, so he was half blind. They didn’t buy their corn from a catalogue. When it came time for seed they went to De La Colmena Market and bought a ten pound bag of the same purple Michoacano corn Ofelio’s wife used for pozole.”
No other plant that has been fiddled with by humans as much as corn. Probably working from Teosinte, a wild grass that is the most likely proto corn, Native American farmers evolved varieties that were adapted to many different environments, from cold mountain highlands to humid tropical lowlands. The culture of corn spread across the Americas like a shock wave, reaching south-eastern Canada to the north and Chile to the south. There were thousands of varieties of corn just in ancient Mexico. The kind of corn Ofelio and Juan liked had big, fat, starchy lavender kernels with a dent in the tip
“They planted it by hand?” John asked.
“Well, first they soaked the corn seed in a bucket of water,” I said. “Then they sharpened a couple of willow sticks. When the corn swelled up they dumped it into feed bags, and threw the bags over their shoulders. They poked holes in the soil with their sticks, let five or six seeds drop from the bags into each hole, scuffed a little dirt with their feet to cover it all, and took another step; poke, poke, drop, drop, scuff, scuff, step, step, over and over until the whole patch was planted.” Ofelio and Juan had come north during the Bracero program in the 50s. Since then, they’d been paid to do every kind of farm work in the US except plant corn by hand, but the rhythm of corn sowing they’d learned as kids stayed with them their whole lives.
“If you don’t have to plant a lot of seed, sowing corn by hand works just fine,” John said.
“Then on Sunday,” I said, “Ofelio’s wife and daughter would get dressed up and go to mass down at the Church of the Assumption in Pajaro, but Ofelio and Juan would worship the corn god.”
“They’d do what?” John asked.
“They’d throw a couple of folding in chairs and an ice chest into the back of Ofelio’s Datsun pick-up and head out to their milpa.”
A milpa is an ingenious agricultural system the ancient Mexicans developed. They planted corn in little hills, and at the foot of the corn stalks they planted beans. The beans grow with the corn, trailing up the stalks. In between the hills of corn they planted squash. The milpa is an example of the potential felicitous harmony between the earth and the human body; the corn supports the beans, the beans, being legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soil for the corn, and the big, broad squash leaves shade out the weeds. Corn, squash and beans, eaten together, also make for a balanced human diet. Milpa agriculture doesn’t work in a production economy where labor costs are high, but as a form of subsistence agriculture, it is genius.
“Juan and Ofelio would poke around in their garden for an hour or two, weeding or watching out for gophers, and by noon they’d retire to the shade of an oak tree nearby, and open up their folding chairs and a couple of beers. They’d tune their radio to the oldies station that spun Ranchera hits by singers like Vicente Fernandez, or Rocío Dúrcal, and they’d hang out. They could make twelve ounces of Budweiser last for hours.”
“How did their corn taste?” John wanted to know. In the US, some dent corn varieties are used to make hominy grits, but many are grown for livestock feed.
“Well, it depends,” I said. “Sweet corn gets right to the point– small plant, big ears, fast growth. But their corn grew, and grew, and grew. When the ears were finally starting to fill out, and the kernels were in the milk, they picked some and Ofelio’s wife made special tamales, not out of masa from dried corn, but from the fresh corn she scraped off the cob with a knife. And instead of wrapping the tamales in dried corn husks, she used green corn husks. Those tamales were sweet, and just about the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
“And then when they found some ears infected with corn fungus, so that the kernels were all swollen and black and distorted, they picked them and took them home as cuitlacoche.
Cuitlacoche looks gross, but it has kind of an earthy, smoky flavor when it’s cooked that’s real good, like mushrooms.
“When the kernels were still fresh, but turning lavender, they’d roast them in their husks over the barbecue and bring them to work to eat cold. I thought their corn on the cob was pretty chewy, but they said it had authentic corn flavor. Who am I to argue? And in the end, when the corn was dried, they took all they had left to Ofelio’s wife for pozole, so I guess you could say their corn tasted like home.”
So maybe Ofelio or Juan wouldn’t be entirely happy with my sweet corn, but my daughter and my wife will be, so I’m looking forward to our harvest. Last Friday I hauled the seed out to the field. I took the big sack by its ears and hauled it off the truck. José opened the bag and reached for a handful of the yellow kernels. He’s from Oaxaca, not too far to the south from Rio Balsas. José looked skeptical. “These seeds sure are small,” he said, “but before we plant them we’ll soak them in water. They’ll swell right up.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
June 21st Spring Fandango With Piccino and our Farm: Sunday June 21, Noon to 9:00