Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who recently authored a book titled Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, published an article in the New York Times on May 25, 2013, about breeding the nutrition out of our food.  In it she explains that new technology has enabled researchers to compare the nutrients in wild plants against those in supermarket produce with “startling” results.  By way of example, she gives a fascinating history of corn.  Here’s an exerpt:

“The wild ancestor of our present-day corn is a grassy plant called teosinte.  It is hard to see the family resemblance.  Teosinte is a bushy plant with short spikes of grain instead of ears, and each spike has only 5 to 12 kernels.  The kernels are encased in shells so dense you’d need a hammer to crack them open.  Once you extract the kernels, you wonder why you bothered.  The dry tidbit of food is a lot of starch and little sugar.  Teosinte has 10 times more protein than the corn we eat today, but it was not soft or sweet enough to tempt our ancestors.”

“Over several thousand years, teosinte underwent several spontaneous mutations.  Nature’s  rewriting of the genome freed the kernels of their cases and turned a spike of grain into a cob with kernels of many colors.  Our ancestors decided that this transformed corn was tasty enough to plant in their gardens.  By the 1400s, corn was central to the diet of people living throughout Mexico and the Americas.”

“When European colonists first arrived in North America, they came upon what they called ‘Indian corn’.  John Winthrop Jr., governor of the colony of Connecticut in the mid-1600s, observed that American Indians grew ‘corne with great variety of colours,’ citing ‘red, yellow, blew, olive colour, and greenish, and some very black and some of intermediate degrees.’  A few centuries later, we would learn that black, red and blue corn is rich in anthocyanins.  Anthocyanins have the potential to fight cancer, calm inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

“European settlers were content with this colorful corn until the summer of 1779 when they found something more delectable – a yellow variety with sweeter and more tender kernels.  This unusual variety came to light after George Washington ordered a scorched-earth campaign against Iroquois tribes.  While the militia was destroying the food caches of the Iroquois and burning their crops, soldiers came across a field of extra-sweet yellow corn.  According to one account, a lieutenant named Richard Bagnal took home some seeds to share with others.  Our old-fashioned sweet corn is a direct descendant of these spoils of war.”

“Up until this time, nature had been the primary change agent in remaking corn.  Farmers began to play a more active role in the 19th century.  In 1836, Noyes Darling, a one time mayor of New Haven, and a gentleman farmer, was the first to use scientific methods to breed a new variety of corn.  His goal was to create a sweet, all-white variety that was ‘fit for boiling’ by mid-July.  He succeeded, noting with pride that he had rid sweet corn of ‘the disadvantage of being yellow.’ The disadvantage of being yellow, we now know, had been an advantage to human health.  Corn with deep yellow kernels, including yellow corn available in our grocery stores, has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene than white corn, valuable because it turns to vitamin A in the body, which helps vision and the immune system.”

“Supersweet corn, which now outsells all other kinds of corn, was born in a cloud of radiation.  Beginning in the 1920s, geneticists exposed corn seeds to radiation to learn more about the normal arrangement of plant genes.  They mutated the seeds by exposing them to X-rays, toxic compounds, cobalt radiation and then, in the 1940s, to blasts of atomic radiation.  All the kernels were stored in a seed bank and made available for research.”

“In 1959, a geneticist named John Laughnan was studying a handful of mutant kernels and popped a few into his mouth. (The corn was no longer radioactive.)  He was startled by their intense sweetness.  Lab tests showed that they were up to 10 times sweeter than ordinary sweet corn.  A blast of radiation had turned the corn into a sugar factory!  Mr. Laughman was not a plant breeder, but he realized at once that this mutant corn would revolutionize the sweet corn industry.  He became an entrepreneur overnight and spent years developing commercial varieties of supersweet corn. His first hybrids began to be sold in 1961.  This appears to be the first genetically modified food to enter the United States food supply, an event that has received scant attention.”

“Within one generation, the new extra-sugary varieties eclipsed old-fashioned sweet corn in the marketplace.  Build a sweeter fruit or vegetable – by any means – and we will come. Today, most of the fresh corn in our supermarkets is extra-sweet, and all of it can be traced back to the radiation experiments.  The kernels are either white, pale yellow, or a combination of the two.  The sweetest varieties approach 40% sugar, bringing new meaning to the words ‘candy corn.’  Only a handful of farmers in the United States specialize in multicolored Indian corn, and it is generally sold for seasonal decoration, not food.”

Assuming that sobering history is not sufficient to scare you off corn for the summer, the good news is, as you will see in the first recipe below, that nothing is easier to cook than boiled corn on the cob. If you want to dress it up a bit, since there’s little you can do to the corn,  you might want to vary the butter.  The composed butters below go well with corn.  You either can spread the butter in the warm corn and let it melt before serving, or serve the corn with the butter in a dish on the side, allowing guests to help themselves.

Vegetables, corn on the cob, boiled, with maitre d'hotel butter 1HERB BUTTER
Vegetables, corn on the cob, boiled, with orange butter 1ORANGE BUTTER
Vegetables, corn on the cob, boiled, with sage butter 1SAGE BUTTER
Vegetables, corn on the cob, boiled, with sesame butter 1SESAME BUTTER
Vegetables, corn on the cob, boiled, with tomato butter 1TOMATO BUTTER

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