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08/07/02 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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It's that time of the year again, when I bite down into my favorite summer vegetable - and I'm not talking tomatoes. What would August be like without the taste of sweet corn! When I was growing up in Kentucky, we only ate the white varieties. We considered the yellow ones to be cow corn. Today I eat yellow, white, and butter and sugar, a combination of both. I pick it from my garden, steam it for less than three minutes - and the rest is history. And, speaking of history, maize has been spreading its kernels around the world for hundreds of years.

The first nation peoples of the Americas began the process of planting corn by selecting each kernel and placing them one by one into the ground, rather than grabbing a handful of seeds and spreading them upon the earth. Whereas the Old World grains came from only a few varieties, this process of selecting seeds allowed the indigenous groups to develop hundreds of varieties of dent corn, sweet corn, popcorn, flint corn, and others. They ranged in color from yellow and red to blue and purple. Some ripened in as little as sixty days, and others took several months.

Corn is more versatile than other grains. It can tolerate soils that receive too much or too little moisture. Rice grows best in semi-tropical zones, and wheat flourishes primarily in temperate zones, but maize grows in both. The indigenous nations cultivated rapid-growing varieties in areas as cold as Canada and the highlands of Chile, while other types of corn flourished in the wet areas of the Amazon. Inca farmers cultivated it on the terraced sides of the Andean Mountains, and Hopi farmers irrigated it and made it grow in the hottest and driest deserts of the United States.

Dr. Will K. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, discovered that he could take corn, flatten it into a flake, and toast it. This one innovation of flaking the corn rather than grinding it created the first corn flakes and the start of the American breakfast-cereal industry.

In our own backyard, as late as the 1930s, the history of flint corn and Vermont agriculture are intimately connected. Flint corn was stored in slatted wooden corn cribs and then, as needed, taken down to the water-powered mills in the towns and ground up into feed for the animals. Garland and Calais flint were two of the favorite Vermont varieties. Most people today can't remember when there were husking bees and farm families went from farm to farm, removing the husks from the flint corn. That's how potluck suppers became part of life in the Green Mountains.

This is Ron Krupp, the northern gardener.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.
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