5 Midwesterners Talk About What Corn Means to Them
In the kitchen, on the patio, at the campsite or right in the field, shucking sweet corn is one of summer's great unifying rituals. It starts by tugging that first outer husk, so stiff that it breaks in half. Thin inner leaves squeak as they peel away from their neighbors. That reveals a thatch of iridescent silk, each thread flossed between the kernels. Finally, the reward—an ingredient with stories to tell and bushels of culinary potential.
Michael Pearl, Pearl Family Farm, Platte County, Missouri
Few century farms have a story quite like this one. In 2009, Michael Pearl left his career at a Fortune 100 company to return to his roots outside Kansas City. He and his wife and kids moved near the 87-acre plot where he grew up—a farm purchased for some $2,700 in 1890 by his great-grandfather, who had been emancipated from slavery. It passed to Pearl's grandfather, his father and now to him.
In the United States today, just over 1 percent of farmers identify as Black. The statistic reflects the long shadow of chattel slavery and gives a sense of how rare and precious the Pearls' stewardship is. "My grandfather was the first farmer to have a threshing machine in the county," Pearl says, noting that he was also the area's only large-scale Black farmer. The same was true of Pearl's father, who grew wheat, soybeans and field corn, but also planted sweet corn for his children to sell by the side of the road. "He would change out the hopper in the planter," Pearl remembers, and dedicate a single acre for the kids.
Today, Pearl Family Farm doesn't grow any field corn. Instead, Pearl farms diverse vegetables, an approach known among the climate-conscious as polycropping. "We live on some of the best ground in the United States, the Missouri River bottom," Pearl says. "You want to maintain it." He chooses what to plant by listening to his farmers market and restaurant customers, and has dabbled in bok choy, radishes, leeks, spinach, potatoes, napa cabbage, tomatoes—and, of course, his nostalgic favorite, sweet corn. Last year, he sowed 10 acres with a bicolor variety similar to Peaches and Cream. "It's a local treat," says Pearl, who harvests corn through the night and has been known to eat a raw cob straight off the plant at sunrise.
Brandon Jaeger + Michelle Ajamian, Shagbark Seed and Mill, Athens, Ohio
Often when we think about the local food movement, we imagine ripe strawberries or curly kale. A sack of grits? That's a tougher sell. But 15 years ago, business partners Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian connected over a shared conviction that the dry staples in our cupboards should be a part of the conversation, too—that they should travel shorter distances and be more healthful and climate-resilient. Rather than sowing seeds, they established a mill in Appalachia and stitched a network of like-minded farmers, retailers and consumers.
Today, Shagbark Seed and Mill is a thriving community operation that processes Ohio-grown, mostly organic grains and beans for sale online and in stores. Corn-based goods constitute more than 60 percent of their business. (Their tortilla chips have an especially fervent fan base.) For polenta, grits and cornmeal, Shagbark sources Wapsie Valley corn, a multicolored heirloom variety, from a farm south of Toledo. The family that grows it tells a funny story: When they give corn to their hogs, the pigs always sniff out Wapsie Valley kernels before touching any of the hybrid stuff. Two-legged consumers note the difference too. You can really smell and taste corn in Shagbark's products, all stone-milled-to-order for fresher flavor and more nutrients.
Ajamian, a fascinating and discursive thinker who has a certificate in permaculture, has a new passion for perennial crops that can be farmed without disturbing the soil every season. But she and Jaeger remain committed to their top seller. "If you hold up a conventional corn kernel to the light, it's almost opaque. It's full of starch. If you hold up an heirloom kernel that isn't oversaturated with nitrogen, you'll be able to see the germ taking up most of the space. It's more nutritious," Ajamian explains. "Since people eat so much corn, we want to get the best corn possible, grown in the best way possible."
Gustavo Romero, Nixta Tortilleria and Mexican Takeout + Oro, Minneapolis
Self-described corn evangelist Gustavo Romero grew up in central Mexico, where his grandparents farmed corn. "I grew up seeing my grandma cooking corn, milling corn, making tortillas by hand," he says. Flash forward to adulthood, and Romero found himself at the helm of the masa program at a restaurant in Oakland, California, where he nixtamalized corn for the first time. Nixtamalization—the word from which his Minneapolis tortilleria takes its name—is an ancient process of soaking dried corn kernels in alkaline limestone water before grinding them to make masa, the dough at the root of Mexican cuisine. The process makes corn's nutrients more bioavailable and yields a more flavorful, pliable tortilla.
A few years ago, Romero relocated to Minnesota to be near his wife's family. "The one thing that I realized when I got here," he says, "is that most people had never had a good tortilla." To achieve results that meet his exacting standards, Romero imports some 20 heirloom corn varieties such as Blue Bolita, White Chalqueño and wine-colored Eh Hub. But he has plans to partner with growers in Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota to bring more Mexican heirlooms to the Midwest.
Likewise, Nixta's corn-forward menu includes less-familiar dishes like tlayudas (large, topped, crispy tortillas), tlacoyos (thick oval-shaped tortillas filled with beans or meat) and sopes (small fried discs of masa, with toppings). "We do all the things that you can find in different mercados in Mexico," Romero says. His latest project is Oro, a sit-down restaurant adjacent to Nixta, where sides and mains alike will be "a deafening ode to the glory of heirloom Mexican corn."
Minneapolis is listening. Restaurants and stores across the metro source Romero's tortillas, and a few other hot spots in town now make masa in-house too. Romero welcomes the company: "I wanted to change the standard."
Elena Terry, Wild Bearies, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Corn is a 9,000-year-old crop, a wild grass first domesticated in Mexico and until colonization, known only to the original inhabitants of the Americas. They sowed it, husked it, cooked it, dried it, ground it, fermented it, braided it, traded it and revered it—passing seeds, and the knowledge and beliefs held within them, from one generation to the next.
One recipient is chef Elena Terry, a member of the Eagle Clan of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Nation and founder of Wild Bearies, a catering and mentorship nonprofit that strengthens tribal communities through food education. Her resume includes time with celebrated Native chefs Sean Sherman and Crystal Wahpepah, but talk to Terry, and you realize her work starts not in the kitchen, but in the soil. She is a seed keeper, preserving ancient varieties by collaborating with both Native growers and other farmers who share her belief in restorative agriculture. "There are some responsible organic growers where I've left a small amount of seeds to see if they enjoyed being there," she says. Now those farms nurture small plots for her exclusive use. Terry also exchanges ingredients such as wild rice for corn, just as her ancestors did. "In this effort to reclaim Indigeneity in our kitchen space," she explains, "we really wanted to reignite traditional trade routes."
When cooking, Terry aims to center decolonized ingredients (those that predate the arrival of Europeans) like corn, squash, beans, maple syrup and bison, while also appealing to contemporary tastes. "I love figuring out ways that I can continue to honor corn in my cooking, and not just have it be corn on the cob," she says. She thickens gravy with cornmeal, and bakes it into traditional breads, olive oil cakes, even macarons. Nixtamalized corn becomes crackers. In season, Terry uses not only the kernels of sweet corn, but also the cob and the milk to infuse flavor into her dishes. "I just really appreciate the diversity of corn," she says. "It's all so beautiful."
Related: Sweet Corn Recipes