From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Old-time Corn Varieties

Another Tall Corn Image c. 1920


A homesteading book lists eight different types of corn that have been developed over the years. How many can you name before you read them? I certainly couldn't have named them all!

The 8 basic corns, in roughly chronological order of development are Indian (hominy and flour) corn, popcorn, pod corn, flint corn, dent corn, sweet (and supersweet) corn, high-lysine corn, and waxy maize. Some of these corns, including Indian corn, popcorn, flint, and dent, are sometimes referred to as "field corn" because they are left in the field to dry on the cob and are stored on the cob. Sweet corn, on the other hand, is picked fresh from the stalk and hurried to the house to be frozen, canned, or dried.

Quoted from The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery (p.160). Published in 2003 by Sasquatch Books, Seattle.

Farmer and tall cornI think the corn in the picture at right (scanned from my 1920 geography book) would fall somewhere before sweet corn in Carla Emery's list. The little boy appears to be holding some ears of dark-colored corn, and the man is holding some lighter-colored ears. It's very likely that the farmer wasn't even planting a named variety of corn. He probably just saved some seed from his best corn each year.

The Dallas County (TX) Archives on Rootsweb contain an interesting story of tall corn in 1895.

When the TIMES HERALD of Friday reached Mr. Jeff Hill, of Egypt, on White Rock creek, he read about County Commissioner Smith bringing to town, a stalk of corn sixteen feet high, and to himself said: "Pshaw! I can beat that, myself," and so saying, he went to his field and took the first stalk he came to, which measured twenty-one and one-half feet in length...

This morning, Mr. Hill called the attention of his neighbor, Mr. P. A. Howell, to the stalk, and Mr. Howell brought it to town, and it may be seen at the court house.

Mr. Howell states that this corn is of the "Mexican June" variety. It averages two ears to the stalk, and the ears run from eight to eleven inches in length. The ears are large in diameter and have plump, full grains...

Source: Dallas County Archives, Miscellaneous Articles Part 4 (Scroll down to 1895.)

I was surprised to learn that "Mexican June" corn seed is still around. One vendor, Gourmet Seed International, gives the following description of the variety:

(80 to 95 days) Mexican June is a very old and formerly widely used white field corn by settlers in the old west as well as the U.S Calvery [sic] and Mormons. Edible in the very early stages as a fine sweet corn, but not extremely sweet. In the dent stage it is an excellent variety for grinding, feed or masa for green corn tamales. Does quite well in moderately cold climates. In spite of continued demand for this heirloom, it is in danger of disappearing from the US market.

Source: Gourmet Seed International's Corn and Popcorn

The various heirloom seed companies describe many varieties of old time corn, such as "Bloody Butcher," "Country Gentleman," and "Peruvian Purple." I've included a few links below that you'll enjoy if you're interested in this sort of thing. A Mother Earth News article about "Uncommon Corn" suggests ordering heirloom seeds from a company in your region, so the plants will be better adapted to your climate.

Related post:
Tall Corn and Steel-Wheel Tractors

Related links:

Giant Olotillo Maize seeds for sale on eBay
Heirloom corn varieties at Victory Seeds
Rare corn varieties at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Old-time corn varieties at Heirloom Seeds
Corn seed list at Tradewinds Fruit

4 comments:

Limey said...

If you fancy a look into the dark underbelly of corn products, then google 'huitlacoche' - surely one of the most bizarre foods around. But 10/10 to the guy that managed to salvage what was obviously a ruined crop.

Genevieve said...

I didn't remember its Spanish name, but I certainly know it by its four letter English name. I've never tried it, but honestly, it should be a food that I'd like. I enjoy mushrooms.

Anonymous said...

I tried huitlacoche when I was in Mexico City in November. It can be purchased in the local markets. I was given a lesson in cooking it and tried it plain and in eggs. The Mexican natives I was with prefer it in eggs. It has a musty corn flavor that ends with a bitter after taste. It can be ordered at some restaurants.

Genevieve said...

The "musty corn flavor" sounds all right, but the "bitter after taste" isn't too appealing. I suppose the flavors vary from one piece of fungus to the next, or one cornfield to the next. After all, these are wild strains of huitlacoche spores, floating through the air and infecting the corn, not cultivated varieties.

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