indian cornA symbol of harvest season, they crop up every fall— those ears of corn with multicolored kernels that adorn doors and grace centerpieces. So how does this decorative corn, known in America as flint corn or Indian corn, differ from other types of corn? How long has it been around? Also, is it grown solely to look good next to pumpkins, gourds and scarecrows in those seasonal displays, or can you actually eat it?

Corn does not grow wild anywhere in the world. Instead, this domesticated plant evolved sometime in the last 10,000 years, through human intervention, from teosinte, a form of wild Mexican grass. Originally cultivated in the Americas, corn was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s; thanks to other explorers and traders, it soon made its way to much of the rest of the globe. In America, the early colonists learned how to cultivate it from the Indians, for whom it was a dietary staple.

Consumed by both animals and humans (by some accounts, corn is contained in 75 percent of all grocery items) , corn also is used in a wide range of non-culinary products, including ethanol, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, makeup, explosives, paper goods and paints. The United States is the planet’s top producer and exporter of corn, the majority of which is grown in the Midwest. By far, the most commonly cultivated kind of corn in America is dent corn (also called field corn), which is used primarily to feed livestock. Dent corn, which also is used in the manufacture of industrial products and processed foods, gets its name from the indentation that appears on the outside of its mature kernels, a result of the hard and soft starch contained in each kernel shrinking unequally during ripening. The kind of corn people usually eat is sweet corn, which can be cooked and chowed directly off the cob, and is also sold canned or frozen. Like dent corn, its kernels are usually yellow or white.

Flint corn, or Indian corn, is one of the oldest varieties of corn, a type that Native Americans taught the early colonists how to cultivate. Its kernels, which come in a range of colors including white, blue and red, have “hard as flint” shells, giving this type of corn its name. Flint corn kernels contain a small amount of soft starch surrounded completely by a larger amount of hard starch, which means the kernels shrink uniformly when drying and are dent-free and less prone to spoiling (and therefore ideal for autumnal décor). Despite its tough exterior, this type of corn can be consumed by livestock and humans, and is used in such dishes as hominy and polenta.

Did You Know?

  • Another type of colorful corn associated with fall, candy corn, was first sold in the 1880s by the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia. Today, the tricolor treat, whose key ingredients include sugar and corn syrup, is made with a corn starch molding process and produced by a number of candy companies. All told, more than 35 million pounds of candy corn roll off the assembly lines each year.

Thanks to the History Channel for this interesting history on Indian Corn!

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