Our Nonna told us that, in Italy, corn (il mais) was ground up and used to make polenta. Corn on the cob was animal feed. She thought it funny that we would enjoy it right off the cob.
Corn is not a traditional Italian vegetable. With the exception of Polenta, which is ground cornmeal, corn, as we know it, was fed to the animals. Corn arrived in Europe, after Columbus’ first visit to the Western Hemisphere. Grinding corn meal was similar to the grinding procedures Italians were already using with chickpeas, chestnuts, millet, barley and other grains for their porridges. Polenta remained a staple of the poor, primarily in the north, right into the early years of the 20th century. In Italy, polenta is often eaten family-style from a large platter or wooden board, allowing guests to serve themselves at the table.
Corn, (Zea mays) is also known as Indian corn or maize and it belongs to the grass family (Poaceae) It was domesticated in the Americas and is now on of the most widely spread of the world’s food crops. Corn is used as human food, animal fodder, biofuel and as an industrial raw material.
As a food source it is a favourite of summer time cookouts. Movie nights and parties see a wide use of popped corn. Corn is also diced and ground into flour which is turned into tortilla, chips and crackers. Today’s corn has been bred to be super sweet with the sweetness lasting for up to a week. This has not always been so. When we first started the DON-O-RAY Vegetable Stand (1960) we had a customer who trained us all about corn. His theory, which I believe to be true, was that after six hours the sugar content in corn begins to turn to starch. He insisted on knowing exactly when the corn was picked. Thus, we made it a habit to pick our corn at first light, when the dew was still on the plants. Even if we had sold all the corn picked that morning, we would not pick any more that day. On the few occasions there was left over corn, it was fed to the chickens. Corn soon became our best seller. New varieties, plus the use of cold storage, has made the handling and selling of corn much easier. But, the principal is still the same… when it comes to corn you can not beet ‘from the field freshness’.
For most of my life, I have followed the family method of corn preparation. The corn was husked and then boiled… but only for a few minutes. Any longer made it tough. Over the years I have tried many other methods… soaking the corn while still in the husk, roasting and grilling. They were either very time consuming or very messy. Now I take two cobs, just as they came from the field, and pop it in the microwave for six minutes. Take it out, cut off the big end and squeeze the corn out… it pops out squeeky clean… no husk and no silk hairs. In the husk it will stay hot for an hour or more and makes it suitable to throw into the picnic basket and head to the beach.
Oh, Nonna did learn to enjoy the tender, sweet, corn that we grew on our farm.
Sources: Polenta: All you Need to Know About the Comfort Food of Northern Italy by Francine Segan February 1, 2022
Jovina Cooks: If Corn Were an Italian Vegetable, May 29, 2012
By The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Aug 22, 2022
Corn by Stephanie Watson, August 14, 2020
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