Worried About GMOs? Try Heirloom Corn
“I’m trying to vary the grains in my diet, and someone told me I should include more corn products like grits and polenta. But aren’t they made from G.M. corn? And what’s the difference between them, anyway?”
This time of year is all about so-called sweet corn. The fresh ears, harvested when the kernels are milky and the ears are tightly jacketed in green leaves, are piled high at farmers markets, roadside farm stands, and supermarkets—an icon of American summer abundance.
But sweet corn, which likely gets its high sugar content from a natural mutation that occurred in Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, represents less than 1 percent of American corn production, notes the Environmental Working Group, and even though Monsanto caused a ruckus with the 2011 announcement that the company planned to sell genetically modified sweet corn seeds in the United States, today only a small amount of G.M. sweet corn can be found in the U.S. market. In a 2013 investigation, for example, Friends of the Earth found that only two out of 71 sample (2.4 percent) tested positive as genetically engineered. (For advice on how to help keep G.M. sweet corn off your plate, check out The Non-GMO Project.)
Starchy field or mill corn, traditionally left in the field to dry before harvest, is the workhorse of the grain world: It’s used for livestock feed and ethanol but also for cornmeal, grits, polenta, masa, and all manner of corn products, from breakfast cereals and tortilla chips to corn syrup and cooking oil. Field corn is the poster child for monoculture, which means little to no crop rotation. Consequently, cornfields are vulnerable to corn borers and other devastating pests, and consequently, EWG explains, “some 90 percent of the American field corn crop is genetically engineered.” Please insert the expletive of your choice here.
Then, cheer up! Thanks to farsighted folks such as John Martin Taylor, who has long sold artisanal stone-ground grits and cornmeal; the visionary Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills; Southern chef and seed saver Sean Brock; and David Shields, a University of South Carolina professor and author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, the heirloom corn movement is alive and flourishing. And sourcing delicious non-GMO grits, polenta, and cornmeal is very easy.
Like vanilla, corn has a Mesoamerican history that in this case stretches back to the Maya, who domesticated the plant from a native grass. Since corn (Zea mays)—what botanists call maize—hybridizes so readily, it has more varieties than any other crop species, wrote food historian Betty Fussell in The Story of Corn. There are thousands of varieties of corn, she added, so many that taxonomists group the varieties into landraces—crops with cultural and physical identities that have been retained, bred, and improved by farmers for centuries.
The most important distinguishing characteristic for field corn varieties is kernel shape and hardness. Flint corn has kernel tops that are round, and dent corn kernels are marked with a dent or dimple. Anson Mills, which is based in Columbia, South Carolina (and is my go-to source for farro and Southern rice and field peas), focuses on hard heirloom flint corns and soft heirloom dent corns of the preindustrial era. “By ‘hard flint,’ we mean that the starch within the kernel is hard,” explains the “What You Need to Know About Corn” page on the Anson Mills website. “Hard flints are tough to mill but are also superior keepers for long-term storage. Many flint corns also ripen earlier than dents…. The enduring popularity of Jonnycake Meal, a white cornmeal made from Narragansett [Rhode Island] White Flint, speaks to a preference for flint corn in a part of the country where early maturing crops suit the region’s relatively short growing season. Dent corn, by contrast, has a soft starch endosperm and opaque kernels. Dents mill easily. Traditional Southern culture, with its emphasis on daily foods and handwork, chose soft dents [which also are a late-maturing, long-season crop] for grits and cornmeal.”
Are grits and polenta the same thing? Well, it depends on whom you ask. According to many culinary historians, when you mill dried corn, you get cornmeal, and grits and polenta are simply two forms of cornmeal mush. Bob’s Red Mill labels its coarsely ground cornmeal as Corn Grits Polenta, and it gets the job done no matter what you’re making.
But Roberts of Anson Mills has a different take, based on the fact that grits are traditionally made from dent corn and polenta is traditionally made from flint corn: “Italians began to cultivate flints from the Caribbean around 1500 and developed a then-new European foodway, polenta di mais, or cornmeal mush. When milled and cooked to similar forms, flint holds its particle texture longer than dent. Hence the famous beading texture and palate ‘grip’ of properly made polenta.”
The European reduction milling techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries also played a large part in the evolution of polenta. “In this process, corn was milled slowly to large pieces, then those large particles were passed through the mill again to make them smaller…until the desired uniform particle size was achieved,” reads the Anson Mills website. “Reduction milling yields grist of extremely uniform particles for even cooking…. Nearly all corn milling in pre-industrial America was single pass, yielding grist with a wide range of particle sizes.”
So, Why Should You Care? “Few people understand how deeply corn production reaches into our lives and how rare the older heirloom varieties have become,” wrote Sean Brock in his fine, from-the-heart cookbook Heritage. “In the wake of industrialization, Americans have become accustomed to hybridized ears of sweet corn designed to be cooked and eaten fresh, and there’s nothing wrong with that…. But most corn is grown to be dried, maybe ground.” And it should be treated with the respect it deserves, not written off as an egregious example of Big Ag run amuck. From a botanical and horticultural perspective alone, field corn landraces are at the very core of genetic diversity. Supporting small-scale farmers and millers is a no-brainer. And most growers of heirloom varieties are sustainable (if not USDA-certified organic). Odds are, their crops won’t be treated with the neonicotinoid insecticides that threaten bees, unlike conventional corn crops.
In a perfect world, none of us would touch the mass-produced grits found in virtually every supermarket, which are made from processed degerminated corn kernels—that is, stripped of their hull and nutritious germ—and ground by steel rollers, which heat up the corn, destroying much of the flavor and aroma in the process. But I am a realist. Those grits are easy to find. They cook relatively quickly. Their blandness makes them an excellent vehicle for butter, a fried egg, or gravy. And speaking as an expat Southerner, I find them better than no grits at all. (Avoid instant grits at all costs, though—their baby-food texture is distinctly off-putting.) In the same vein, as far as polenta goes, I know a number of harried Italian cooks who swear by the kind that comes in a tube.
But in both cases, absolutely nothing compares to the real deal, stone ground the way grits and polenta were when every decent-size Southern or Italian town had its own mill: The nutritious germ is preserved, along with a resonant cracked-corn flavor that is nothing short of soulful. They will rock your world.
Sources for Heirloom (non-GMO) Grits, Polenta, Cornmeal, and More
Anson Mills (Glenn Roberts)
Bob’s Red Mill
Available at supermarkets and online sources.
Hoppin’ John’s (John Martin Taylor)
The Original GritGirl
Although the website says “wholesale only,” the Oxford, Mississippi–based proprietor, Georgeanne Ross, will ship to consumers all over the country. Simply fill out the contact form, and you’re in business.
Last, for all you gardeners out there who are already contemplating next year’s crops, you can find open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of sweet corn, as well as field corn varieties, at any number of online sources, including one of my favorites, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.