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Corn is the official Wisconsin grain, but for all practical purposes, sweet corn also could be the official state vegetable. In fact, it’s the third-most-liked veggie in the country after potatoes and tomatoes, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet much of the world disdains the thought of eating fresh corn — or as some call it, maize. The English love cornflakes and the Italians their polenta, but gnawing it off the cob is considered a peculiarly American custom, and maybe fittingly so.
Corn’s history goes back at least 7,000 years. In Mexico, humans domesticated mahiz (scientific name: zea mays) from a wild grass called teosinte. As indigenous people migrated northward, they brought this prized plant with them. At the first Thanksgiving in 1621, few iconic dishes included at today’s holiday feast were on the menu, but surely Indian corn was. With its solid, multicolored kernels, it became a major source of sustenance for Native Americans, colonists and their livestock. By the latter half of the 18th century, Iroquois tribes grew a different kind of corn they called papoon. A spontaneous mutation had caused a single recessive gene to prevent sugar from being turned into starch. In 1779, Revolutionary War Lt. Richard Bagnall returned from battle against the Natives who had sided with the British, and he brought with him his spoils of war: a bag of Iroquois sweet corn seed.
Bagnall’s sweet corn was white with a red cob. By the 1850s, crossbreeding had greatly improved the species, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that hybridization took off. Still, the problem with sweet corn was that it soon lost its sweetness on the store shelf. In 1961, John Laughnan, a University of Illinois botanist, introduced the first supersweet corn, Illini Chief.
According to 2016 USDA data, Wisconsin was the No. 3 sweet corn producer and No. 9 exporter. While only about 1 percent of the crop is consumed fresh (most is used for making ethanol), it’s also an intrinsic part of our state’s food culture.
For Ho-Chunk people, harvesting this staple of its members’ diet remains a labor-intensive and time-honored ritual, from grooming the soil to storing the corn. The Oneida Nation also keeps old customs alive, teaching a three-step process for preparing traditional white Indian corn. Both tribes taught white settlers the joy of eating fresh corn steamed in its husk.
Started in 1953, the Sun Prairie Sweet Corn Festival is the oldest celebration of its kind in the state. Each year in mid-August, more than 100,000 cob-chomping fans attend the four-day event and consume more than 80 tons of steamed and buttered corn. This year’s extravaganza is Aug. 16-19 at Angel Park in Sun Prairie. Along with cream puffs and fried cheese curds, roasted corn on the cob is one of the three most popular treats at the Wisconsin State Fair. At the Dane County Farmers’ Market, dew-covered, freshly picked ears are probably the most anticipated seasonal indulgence.
Whether corn is a proper vegetable or not, there’s no arguing it’s an integral component of American cuisine and makes summer all the sweeter.
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.
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