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Crazy for Corn!

 

What do the Amish and the Aztec Indians have in common? Corn! Corn has been used for centuries in the Americas as food for both people and animals. The creative uses of corn by Pennsylvania Dutch cooks is legendary. Today corn is even important to the environment, as seen in the use of ethanol fuel. Most recently, corn has become an "attraction," as families flock to fields of mazes to challenge their puzzle-solving skills! Let’s take a look at the world of corn…

A Gift from the Indians

Corn is native to the Americas, and some form of it was probably growing 7,000 years ago by Native American Indians. Archaeologists have found 5,000-year-old petrified corncobs in excavations at ancient Indian villages. Central and South American Indians ground corn into flour, used the sugary corn leaves as a kind of "chewing gum," and even enjoyed it as popcorn long before it became the favorite snack at the movies.

Unknown in Europe, corn was mentioned by Christopher Columbus in his 1492 journal as "well tasted, baked and dried and made into flour." Columbus took corn back to Spain, and it was soon introduced throughout Western Europe.

The Indians gave corn to the earliest European settlers during their first winter here, probably saving them from starvation. The Indians planted their corn kernels with small fish that acted as a fertilizer. The settlers also learned to make many foods prepared by the Indians from corn, including bread, soup, fried cakes, and pudding. Corn was even used as money and traded for furs and meat.

 

From Field to Fodder

Then as now, there were many varieties and colors of corn. Settlers liked the yellow field corn, and sources say sweet corn was "discovered" in Pennsylvania in 1779.

Plowing the Cornfield

Photo courtesy of Philip Farino

 

Today, Lancaster’s dairy farmers plant seemingly endless fields of corn to feed their dairy cows. Among Amish farmers, field corn is cut, bound, and run through ensilage cutters to fill the silo. This provides feed for the cows over the winter months. Some ears are left to dry on the stalk, then picked and stored in corncribs. Finally, the brown, dry corn stalks and leaves can be shredded and the fodder used as bedding for the animals.

 

Corn on the cob On and Off the Cob

We locals love to eat corn-on-the-cob over the summer. It is a special summer treat to stop at a roadside stand, buy some fresh-picked corn, take it home and boil it in water, then cover it with butter and salt. Of course, this is not the yellow field corn grown and fed to the cows that covers much of the countryside we see. Most of us prefer white corn-on-the-cob, such as Silver Queen, and it is not unusual to eat three ears (or more) at one sitting.

 

Soupy Sales

Perhaps the most famous dish using corn is our delicious Chicken Corn Soup, a true regional specialty commonly on sale at rural fire company dinners, auctions and fundraisers. While some cooks use noodles, traditional Pennsylvania Dutch chicken corn soup has little pieces of dough called "rivvels" or "riwwele." These were most likely a form of the "spaetzle" noodles of southwest Germany. This soup is said to be a more recent variation of chicken pot pie, and is one of our most hearty and tasty concoctions.

The Ronks Volunteer Fire Company is famous for its Chicken Corn Soup dinners. Those not eating at the fire hall arrive well before noon, take a number, and wait their turn to be called. Most locals bring several containers to be filled with soup. You’ll usually see a few Amish kids pulling wagons to transport the delicious soup home for lunch!

 

Keeping the Kernels

Since corn was so popular, it was important to find ways of preserving it. So ground corn meal and corn in relishes became common food items, and have remained so to this day. Locally, corn is the main ingredient in corn bread, baked corn custard, corn fritters, corn pone, corn relish, cornmeal mush, pancakes, and even corn pie, yet another twist on the traditional chicken pot pie.

Ear of corn
In  the days before frozen and canned corn, the kernels were also dried. Thus, later in the year, this dehydrated corn could be soaked in water, and then boiled or baked in the oven. When I lived in Central America, I tried making some dried corn, putting the kernels on the metal roof of my little house. After a few days in the hot sun, they soon dried. Unfortunately, the neighbor’s chickens got to the corn before I did! Today, we locals still enjoy the unique nutty flavor and texture of dried corn. It can be purchased in our local supermarkets and is served at most family-style restaurants.

 

Get Lost!

One of the more fascinating uses of corn is the corn maze, or "maize maze," taking its name from the early American word for corn. A maze is designed and then cut into the rows of corn stalks. Visitors enjoy the fun of finding their way through the labyrinth of pathways.

 

Amazing Maize Maze
 

Here in Lancaster we are proud to have what the Discovery Channel has called "the world’s biggest free-standing mind bender." Each year the Cherry-Crest Farm in Paradise creates a 5-acre puzzle with a different theme each year. Their 5th Annual Amazing Maize Maze was the "Lost In Space 2000,"  As an extra treat, you can ride the Strasburg Rail Road to the maze, and then catch a later train back to Strasburg. There are many other fun activities going on besides the maze itself, so plan to visit the farm between July and October. (Call 717-687-6843 for details.)

It’s All in the Kernel

Inside each kernel of corn is a complete corn plant. If you take a corn plant two to three feet high and cut the stalk down the middle with a knife, you will find the tiny "ears" of corn embedded inside that will slowly push their way up and out as the corn plant grows. It is truly amazing to see all that will later develop, in miniature, in a young corn stalk. Eventually, the pollen from the tassels fertilizes the silky threads that grow from the ears, and the cob and its kernels start to develop.

For me, corn has one other function….sheer beauty. The fields of green corn blanketing our farmlands here in Lancaster are beautiful. As harvest time comes, Amish farmers are out in the fields with their horses cutting the stalks, and filling silos. Some Amish farmers still set up shocks of corn to dry in their fields, a rare sight in America nowadays. Corn is so much a part of life here in so many ways that it is impossible for me to think of Amish Country and not think corn!

Amish Country News Cover Article by Brad Igou (June 2000, 2003)

 

For the June dining issue of Amish Country News, we asked chefs at area restaurants to submit their favorite corn-based recipes. We thought we would see how many interesting recipes they could come up with. So here are a few traditional and not-so-traditional ways to cook with corn. Sample them while you’re visiting Lancaster County's Amish Country or try them at home!

 

Amish Barn Chicken Corn Soup Historic Strasburg Inn Easy Corn Pudding
Dutch Apple Corn Casserole Kitchen Kettle Corn Salsa & Quesadillas
Good 'N Plenty Baked Corn Miller's Smorgasbord Chicken Corn Soup
Harvest Drive Amish Corn Plain & Fancy Dried Corn
Hershey Farm Baked Corn Willow Valley Corn Pie
 

Did you know...

  • Corn is a member of the grass family.
  • An ear of corn has about 800 kernels in its 16 rows.
  • A good acre of corn might have up to 25,000 plants.
  • A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds.
  • A bushel of corn can provide 2.5 gallons of ethanol fuel, or about 32 pounds of sweetener or cornstarch.
  • Over 3,000 products in the supermarket contain corn in some form, including cereals, snack foods, margarine, oil, puddings, soda, and soap.
  • A bushel of corn fed to livestock produces over 5 pounds of beef, 13 pounds of pork, 19 pounds of chicken, or 28 pounds of catfish!

For more corn facts, visit www.ohiocorn.org

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