Corn, also known as of Zea mays, was first domesticated from a wild grass known as teosinte which is native to central and southern Mexico, and Central America. Evidence of ancient corn cobs found in caves in Mexico proves that domesticated corn goes as far back as over 6200 years ago.
There are other types of corn that are genetically more sweet than the field varieties in their green stage. Varieties of sweet corn that are naturally sweet evolved as a genetic mutation which causes the kernels to accumulate about two times the amount of sugar than field corn. These types of corn are the result of naturally occurring recessive mutations in the genes controlling the conversion of sugar to starch in the endosperm of the corn kernels. Therefore, these types of corn strains were genetically ideal to be picked when young or green to be eaten as a grain.
While these naturally sweet strains were not really popular in the US before the 19th century, several Native American tribes had been growing sweet varieties of corn. Chullpi from Peru or Papoon from Mexico were the two most significant types of naturally occurring sweet corn. Papoon definitely made its way from Mexico to as far as the northeastern portion of North America and was acquired by the settlers from the Iroquois Indians in 1779.
Because settlers weren't really exposed to sweet corn until the late 18th century, it is no surprise then that sweet varieties of corn did not became more popular in North America until the 19th century, when planters started experimenting with them and crossing them with other varieties, making the grain even sweeter and more tender than ever before. Interestingly, it was the 19th century invention of the canning process that sparked the desire to develop even sweeter strains of sweet corn so that the taste of sweet fresh corn on the cob could be captured in a can for year-round enjoyment. Interestingly, modern varieties of sweet corn are bred to be as sweet as possible, containing three to four times more sugar than their field counterparts.
Here is a delicious 19th century Maryland recipe for using sweet corn as a grain:
- 12 Small Ears of Sweet Corn or 4-5 Cups of Corn Kernels
- 2 Sticks of Salted Butter
- 1/4 Cup Whole Milk or Cream
- Salt & Pepper, To Taste
|Fried Corn Browning as it Cooks|
3. Add the milk or cream and cook on low for another five minutes over very low heat.
- Betty Fussell, The Story of Corn (New York, 1992)
- Lance Gibson and Garren Benson, "Origin, History, and Uses of Corn (Zea mays)", Iowa State University, Department of Agronomy, January 2002
- "Sweet Corn": https://cals.arizona.edu/fps/sites/cals.arizona.edu.fps/files/cotw/Sweet_Corn.pdf