Mental Floss

Dietribes: Corn on the Cob

Allison Keene

"¢Â The miracle of corn (that a wild grass that is barely able to reseed could be so domesticated, and so dominant) is mostly a Western one. Sweet corn as we know it today was not developed until long after Columbus landed in the New World. In fact, the swift rise of corn as a major food source remains controversial.

"¢Â Anatomy of a corn cob: the number of rows on an ear will usually be even, assuming a normal environment, because of a split of the first kernel (much like a cell splitting into two, then four, etc). Silk is connected to potential kernels within the ear - it's a function of the female part of the plant, but requires pollination to turn into an actual kernel (out of roughly 1000 potential kernels, typically only 400-600 develop).

"¢Â Who said the peanut was the most versatile food? Corn is in everything! For example: Corncobs, when finely ground, are relatively dust free and very absorbent. This absorbency makes corncobs useful carriers for pesticides, fertilizers, vitamins, hand soaps, cosmetics and animal litters. Paper products use raw starch in the manufacturing process. An oxidized starch paste, which dries to a clear, adherent, continuous film, is spread in a thin layer over the aspirin. Also, the major carbohydrate in the production of whiskey is corn.

"¢Â This amazing cornstarch experiment shows how cornstarch, though a liquid, can be walked across (Mythbusters did a similar trial, as I recall - and yes, it could be walked across! Although quickly).

"¢Â Corn grows fast. Just how fast? "When corn grew to a certain point, you actually could hear it grow. A few folks are skeptical of that, but if you grew up on a farm, you knew it to be true. On those hot, humid days of June, you could hear the leaves creaking and stretching out those inches in a single day. And if the wind was gently blowing, you got the rustling of the leaves mixed in with groans and creaks of growth."

"¢Â Several midwestern states are known for their corn production. Iowa can boast that their tallest corn stalks exceed the average height of an adult Asian elephant's eye. Unfortunately, the average annual number of traffic accidents in (as of 2000) caused by low visibility due to corn stalks? 65. The Iowa Department of Transportation statistics show there were 48 total crashes during 2009 at rural intersections due to obstructed views by trees or crops.

"¢Â Nebraska got a positive change thanks to corn: before 1900, Nebraska football teams were known by such names as the Old Gold Knights, Antelopes, Rattlesnake Boys and the Bugeaters.  The team changed its name from Bugeaters to Cornhuskers thanks to Lincoln sportswriter Charles S. (Cy) Sherman.

"¢Â And South Dakota is the only state who can boast having a genuine corn palace.

"¢Â Corn can be fashioned into all sorts of things, including pipes, labyrinths, horror films, and even has its likeness featured on a water tower.

"¢Â We picked a good month to feature corn, with several festivals happening in August. Have any of you attended these, and are there expert cornhuskers among us? Has anyone ever gotten lost in a Maize Maze? My corn cob story: my grandmother had an amazing relic (now in joke form) from the days when her family used outhouses - a little box with a corn cob in it, protected by glass, and a tiny hammer that said "in case of emergency."

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.