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Where is the sweet corn of yesteryear?

alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 08:01 AM

Many 'hounds have commented on the prevalence of super sweet varieties of white corn, especially in the past 10-15 years, which has virtually driven yellow corn out of markets. Sweetness drives out flavor just as bad money drives out good. Our local farmers' market is generally a wonderful one (Marin County, California) and in the Bay Area corn from the Brentwood region has been the best available. One stand at the market would have a small mound of yellow next to the mountain of white, and I always felt lucky to grab some ears of it--picked that morning.

I did this yesterday and ate it for dinner. The juiciness: perfect. The texture: perfect, not a bit of mealiness. The flavor: Oh Noooo!!! It had gone SWEET! Not as sweet as the white stuff, a little bit more corn-like in flavor, but not that corn of memory and dream that had the texture and the juiciness and also actually tasted like corn--not like Halloween candy corn.

I was raised in Michigan and perhaps in the midwest there is still available what I think of as real corn. But my impression is that this is becoming harder to find. Or is there a nacent heirloom corn movement such as we have seen achieve success in tomatoes and even pork? What varieties, if so? I would love to know about it and try to get some local growers to provide us with corn that tastes like corn. I never liked that Halloween stuff anyway.

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  1. Robert Lauriston RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 10:16 AM


    1. ChefJune RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 10:36 AM

      I think for the most part, unless you seek out heirloom varieties of sweet corn, that all you find in the markets any more are hybrids that have been bred for long shelf life and shipability.

      Look for good corn at local farm stands, and ask what variety it is you are buying.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ChefJune
        Will Owen RE: ChefJune Jul 2, 2007 11:08 AM

        People have gotten so used to sugary-sweet corn they think that's how it's SUPPOSED to taste. It's been an awful long time since I've had corn worth the butter, salt and pepper, stuff that actually required a bit of chewing. The corn of my childhood was not too many generations away from plain field corn - in fact, some of it was field corn, and had to be picked green to eat like that.

      2. byrd RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 11:14 AM

        like the tomato, corn is to be eaten in the short summer/early fall season from the local farm stand, backyard or farmers market. supermarket corn or tomatoes (although they serve their purpose) are not the same products as the afore mentioned.

        1 Reply
        1. re: byrd
          Robert Lauriston RE: byrd Jul 2, 2007 11:22 AM

          I haven't found heirloom corn at a farm stand or farmers market in years. Even old su hybrids like Silver Queen are virtually extinct as a commercial crop. It's all se and sh2 hybrids.


          R. W. Apple Jr. wrote a piece about hybrid corn for the New York Times in 2004:


        2. s
          Shazam RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 11:24 AM

          The best corn in the world is from Taber, Alberta. Deep, deep yellow corn with an incredible flavour and sweetness.

          And yeah, I said best corn in the world :)

          4 Replies
          1. re: Shazam
            Steve RE: Shazam Jul 3, 2007 06:59 AM

            I'll be in Calgary, Brooks, and Drumheller in August. Any chance I might find some of this corn?

            1. re: Steve
              Shazam RE: Steve Jul 3, 2007 03:45 PM

              Yup. There'll be corn stands all over town. Ask them if it is Taber corn, and ask to see their certificate of authenticity. Co-op and the Superstore grocery chains usually get some in as well.

              I have no idea how the crop is doing this year, so let's hope it's good :)

              1. re: Steve
                bogie RE: Steve Jul 8, 2007 09:30 PM

                I miss it so much since I moved from Edmonton to Toronto, although I have to admit that the produce here is amazing too.

              2. re: Shazam
                inuksuk RE: Shazam Jul 4, 2007 12:29 AM

                You're not wrong.

              3. MsDiPesto RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 11:30 AM

                It's been my experience that the corn grown on the Hurley flats along the Esopus Creek in the Hudson Valley has been the most consistently tasty. If you find yourself on the NY Thruway, just make a quick exit at the Kingston/Woodstock exit, and pick some up at the Davenport farm stand just on the other side of the Traffic Circle.

                1. m
                  mpalmer6c RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 11:39 AM

                  Agree about the flavorless supersweet hybrids. My favorite is the traditional golden bantam, and I'm fortunate to have enough space to grow it myself..

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: mpalmer6c
                    Karl S RE: mpalmer6c Jul 3, 2007 06:15 AM

                    Realize that Golden Bantam is only about a century old, and was the variety that introduced yellow sweet corn to most Americans. That it's now "traditional" says a lot about the debased state of our corn varieties...

                  2. i
                    Ifood RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 03:52 PM

                    Do you mean the starchy, crappy corn of yesteryear?

                    That's what I remember. Unless you went out to the Corn Palace, the corn was harder, starchier, and crappier.

                    Could you explain what was better about that?

                    PROGRESS IS NOT ALWAYS BAD!!!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Ifood
                      Shazam RE: Ifood Jul 2, 2007 04:21 PM

                      Yup. The problem with corn back in the day was that the moment it was removed from the stalk, the sugars would turn into starch. So if you didn't eat it in the next five minutes (ok, a couple of hours), it would be starchy.

                      1. re: Shazam
                        Will Owen RE: Shazam Jul 2, 2007 06:31 PM

                        ...and, as I tried to say without sneering too much, that is how some of us rather prefer it. No, it did not go inedible in a few hours - it took a couple of days, as long as you kept it cool - but we considered corn to be a sort of starch with a bit of sweetness to it, like sweet potatoes. Modern corn tastes like some kind of dessert.

                        1. re: Will Owen
                          Will Owen RE: Will Owen Jul 5, 2007 05:30 PM

                          ...and now I am happy to report that I found both white AND YELLOW corn at my local Gelson's market (in Pasadena, CA) a couple of days ago. Not cheap at 79ยข each, but they were pretty big. I bought two huge ears of the yellow and boiled them to eat with a grilled chicken and some cut-up tomatoes. A little sweeter than I like, but sturdy and chewy with a pretty good corny flavor. We were pleased.

                      2. re: Ifood
                        mpalmer6c RE: Ifood Jul 6, 2007 11:19 PM

                        If you like supersweet corn, who can argue with individual taste? But supersweet corn to me is like filet mignon. Flavorless.

                      3. jfood RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 05:37 PM

                        jfood was commenting the other noght to mrs jfood that the corn this year in CT has been exceptional. All jfood knows is the variety that is hitting the local grocers are plump, tightly wrapped, handle the heat of the grill very well and have a wonderful flavor, not overl sweet and not mealy at all.

                        Hard to believe the corn in CT is great and those in SF are complaining. Who-da thunk it?

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: jfood
                          MommaJ RE: jfood Jul 4, 2007 12:22 AM

                          Are you finding local CT corn? Because I thought it was too early, and everything in the supermarket was from other parts of the country.

                          1. re: MommaJ
                            jfood RE: MommaJ Jul 4, 2007 07:22 PM

                            Sorry M. jfood did not want to give the impression the corn in the grocer is from CT. way too early for that, knee high by fourth of july rule up here. heck we are still egtting hot house tomatoes if they're locals.

                            These ears must be from down south but the qaulity has been outstanding.

                        2. Gio RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 05:57 PM

                          The corn we buy throughout the season here in northeastern Massachusetts at the farms has been consistently tasty - not overly sweet, with a bit of a chewy quality, sometimes bright yellow and sometimes white and yellow but altogether very satisfying. I have no idea of the name of the variety, however. Next time we buy I'll ask and report back.

                          1. t
                            TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 06:45 PM

                            I'm not certain that heirloom varieties are a guarantee.
                            With certain crops, "time to table" makes a *considerable* difference ... even one day.

                            Corn taken from the field, still warm from the sun, is exceptional.

                            I was once convinced by a gardener, with far more seasons behind her than myself, to grow broccoli.
                            At the time, with ready access to "farmers' markets" (urban, not rural, road-side stand), I couldn't understand why I would bother.
                            I know now.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis
                              Karl S RE: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis Jul 3, 2007 06:17 AM

                              Oh yeah - the only broccoli I care to bother with is freshly cut. It's not worth the bother otherwise - I am that picky about broccoli, because I grew up with that as the benchmark.

                              1. re: Karl S
                                BobB RE: Karl S Jul 3, 2007 08:00 AM

                                Ditto brussels sprouts - the one time I ate them fresh picked at a farm I was astonished at how good they were!

                            2. j
                              Jimbosox04 RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 08:13 PM

                              The sweetcorn of yesteryear was planted where someone had parked thier truck for 5 years leaking oil on a hazardous dump. It was sweet and thats all we know about it, hybrid as it may be was it at all health conscious. What I am trying to say is that grass is always greener, what the old folk consider of today is nothing compared to what they "had" but probably alot better for them. Let spray it with some chemical that we have no concept of what it will do to us in the future to preserve it, but it helps the shelf life, etc... I just think we are a little to critical

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Jimbosox04
                                marilyn9 RE: Jimbosox04 Jul 2, 2007 08:27 PM

                                A lot of romantic notions on this thread. I wonder how many years its been since those of you commenting on hybrid crops and plant breeding worked on a farm. Never? You don't say.

                                1. re: Jimbosox04
                                  bigjimbray RE: Jimbosox04 Jul 2, 2007 08:29 PM

                                  I have had the answer to your yellow sweet corn right here in knisburg ca. this man
                                  sells it here every year and he won`t tell people what the variety is. he just says it
                                  is a hybrid. people come from all around to buy cases of this corn. he sales out
                                  everyday.. it is yellow, and its buy far the sweetest corn I have ever eaten. and as for
                                  a contest I would put it up against. any variety there is no matter what color. its just
                                  that good. people line up everyday when he starts to sell this corn.

                                  1. re: bigjimbray
                                    Robert Lauriston RE: bigjimbray Jul 3, 2007 09:47 AM

                                    If it's the sweetest corn you've ever eaten, it must be sh2 hybrid. Lots of people prefer it, that's why it's so hard to find anything else.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston
                                      Eldon Kreider RE: Robert Lauriston Jul 3, 2007 05:08 PM

                                      The variety may be Mirai, which carries both sh and se genes. A seed producer in Michigan has succeeded in producing seed with both genes. The process apparently has some technical problems, so the seed is expensive and in limited supply.

                                2. a
                                  alfairfax RE: alfairfax Jul 2, 2007 09:04 PM

                                  Well, now. Some surprising (to me) replies. Maybe I should clarify more what I meant. As far as comment about working on a farm, or corn growing in effluent from leaky truck crankshafts, I can only say that farm work is not now nor has ever been easy, and I am not interested in either motor oil-grown nor pestiside-laden corn. I am sure that the corn of yesteryear was a hybrid, as are all corns we eat, and remember the signs nailed on fenceposts identifying the producer of the hybrid as we drove across southern Michigan farmland when I was a kid, the rows of corn seeming to fly by us as we stood still. One of my favorite optical illusions. And yes, there may be some nostalgia here, but still: I am talking about sweet corn that while clearly sweet still tasted of corn, was NOT tough though perhaps chewier than today's syrupy varieties, and most certainly was whatever the opposite of crappy might be. There are uses of the super-sweet varieties, I know. A noted SF chef to whom I complained about the state of corn today indicated that she liked to use it. When I asked how, she told me she cut it off the cob and used it uncooked as a salad ingredient. That I could see. But I want corn-tasting hot corn on the cob, corny yet with a mild sweetness, perhaps a bit toothsome but not tough. I know it used to be there. By the way, the super sweet variety I ate that triggered this thread was labeled, and I believe accurately, as picked the morning I bought it. I got it home by 11AM, refrigerated it, shucked it, cooked and ate it before 7 that evening. In this day and age, that is about as fresh as you can get it unless you grow your own.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: alfairfax
                                    LRunkle RE: alfairfax Jul 3, 2007 06:21 AM

                                    Things aren't as good as they used to be, and probably never were.

                                    1. re: LRunkle
                                      bigjimbray RE: LRunkle Jul 3, 2007 05:44 PM

                                      this corn this man has in Kingsburg, is picked that day he sells it because he
                                      runs out everyday. I don`t know like I said before about the variety, he just says
                                      that is a hybrid. I sure wished I could find out where he buys his seed, I would
                                      find out.

                                    2. re: alfairfax
                                      dct RE: alfairfax Jul 4, 2007 02:04 PM

                                      Just to reiterate what's scattered here--corn has changed. The development of the supersweet hybrids has been widely adopted. I live in Michigan and my mother has been planting corn in her garden for 40 years. The supersweets are reliable and many people like that sweetness that you used to be able get only with super fresh sweet varieties (also hybrids, you are correct). I remember my mother switching over sometime in the 80s. She likes the flavor and it's easier to store and put up when you have a few days before flavor loss. In addition the supersweets seem to be more reliable, vigorous plants.

                                      That said, I sometimes do miss a corn flavor--while I like the supersweets, they do taste different and can be a bit one-note, especially if they have been stored. But I know I've seen Silver Queen and other, older varieties at stands--but you do have to seek it out. It can be worth asking a corn farmer if they have other varities that they grow for fun that they don't bother to bring to market.

                                      In amusing contrast, my mother and I were in Peru and eager to try the corn there, as it is a staple and beloved. It had HUGE kernels an inch across. It wasn't sweet at all, but neither was it corny! Very bland in fact. Disappointing alas.

                                      Good luck in your search!

                                      1. re: dct
                                        Harp00n RE: dct Jul 9, 2007 07:27 PM

                                        You may well have seen Silver Queen, my favorite, at some local stands. But it's just as likely they were using the, increasingly common, shoddy practice of generically labeling any late-season white corn "Silver Queen".
                                        Shame on them!

                                    3. t
                                      torty RE: alfairfax Jul 3, 2007 08:25 PM

                                      I have not had any success getting anything but the super sweet, very tender white stuff from my local So Cal farmers market. I like what I think of as original yellow corn that has larger fatter kernels, a starchier cornier taste, but is still sweet, and if you let it go on the grill it gets really chewy and corny. In the last 10 years the only corn I have had that gives me that is when I plant some in my small veggie garden. Usually 4 to 5 double rows. I kept the seed packet cuz I wanted to remember the variety. It was Corn, sweet, late season, yellow Golden Cross Bantam T-51 (Hybrid) from Ferry-Morse Seed Co.

                                      1. j
                                        justicedogue RE: alfairfax Jul 4, 2007 02:20 PM

                                        Brentwood Northern Cal white corn is the very best. I miss living up there. I know the owners of this link and they by far have the best. http://www.brentwoodsweetcorn.com/

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: justicedogue
                                          Robert Lauriston RE: justicedogue Jul 4, 2007 02:55 PM

                                          From their Web site, they don't appear to grow anything but supersweet varieties.

                                          What on earth does "ice injected" mean?

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston
                                            Gio RE: Robert Lauriston Jul 5, 2007 06:36 PM

                                            I believe that when corn is picked to be shipped elsewhere, each crate of packed corn is washed down with ice water to keep the sugar and the flavor consistent.

                                        2. b
                                          blackpointyboots RE: alfairfax Jul 4, 2007 02:22 PM

                                          We can still get the type of corn alfairfax is looking for. But I live in South Dakota and I can only get it from certain farmers market vendors. We have a couple that grow the same variety that they have been forever. They sell it out just about every weekend in late summer. It is the kind in question. True yellow, a bit more tooth to it but still sweet. Not the thin skinned kernels of super sweet white stuff. There are a few places that do sell it, most sell it labeled as "candy corn". We also have one roadside vendor that has multiple locations around town that sells feed corn as sweet corn.

                                          1. BarmyFotheringayPhipps RE: alfairfax Jul 4, 2007 03:13 PM

                                            Stillman's Farm in eastern MA mentioned in their CSA newsletter last summer that they weren't growing super-sweet hybrids, simply because they didn't like them very much. Actually, we start to dread corn season a bit: 12 ears a week for two solid months gets you pretty seriously burned out, even when it's exceptionally good corn that tastes like corn.

                                            1. m
                                              MellieMac RE: alfairfax Jul 6, 2007 11:28 PM

                                              Funny how everybody has their corn stories from different areas of the country. PS, hands down, best corn ever, late summer from New Jersey and Long Island. It happens naturally...

                                              1. f
                                                french roast RE: alfairfax Jul 7, 2007 05:19 AM

                                                Growing up in Texas, my parents would often search for something we referred to at "field corn" or "horse corn". It was somewhat chewy, and really tasty--lots of corn taste, and not very sweet. Does anyone else eat this?

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: french roast
                                                  Robert Lauriston RE: french roast Jul 7, 2007 09:33 AM

                                                  I've had field corn grilled as a street snack in Italy and Mexico. Probably has more flavor when it's fresh, but what I had didn't have much flavor, and was extremely fibrous.

                                                2. h
                                                  HungryLetsEat RE: alfairfax Jul 9, 2007 07:37 PM

                                                  If you want to read about what's happened to corn pick up a copy of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. It tells how corn has evolved over the centuries - and how it proliferates (in various forms) through the majority of products in any given supermarket. It's really quite frightening.

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