WASHINGTON – Learning the anatomy of a food strips it of its mystery. Once you know its parts,its chemical processes,economic value and its origin,the simple pleasure of tasting it somehow becomes more complicated.
Take corn for instance.
“When you hear about all the different parts of corn,all the different names of the parts,it's hard to imagine eating it,” said Ruth Levin,72,at a recent U.S. Botanical Gardens' lecture,“A Tasty History of Corn.”
Chef Andreas Fleckenstein,who trained at the Culinary Institute of America,displayed illustrations detailing the four parts of the corn kernel: the protective pericarp,the starch-saturated endosperm,the oil- and enzyme-filled germ and the tip cap,which attaches the kernel to the cob.
“You can just feel yourself biting through the pericarp,” Fleckenstein said to the 25 people in the audience.
The lecture was inspired by one of six colossal murals hanging on the wall in the main hallway,painted for the Botanic Garden by Las Vegas painter Robert Beckmann. The other scenes depict citrus,rice,tea,chocolate and cotton.
“We chose corn because it is uniquely American,” said Christine Flanagan,program director at the Botanic Garden. “And we wanted to make sure we had a plant that represented the broad economic uses of plants.”
The full,kernel-covered cob of today originated from a thinner,tougher grass called teosinte,which still dominates some fields in Mexico and Latin America. The United States is the world's largest producer of corn.
Fleckenstein predicted an increased demand for corn that has not been heavily tampered with,as more Americans request organically grown foods. He said today's corn products are the result of centuries of cross-breeding and genetic modification,but the “organic food market is proof that people want naturally grown,organically fertilized and healthy foods.”
He said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's emphasis on a diet heavier in fruits and vegetables and the deflation of the Atkins diet should mean increased corn consumption. He said the high-protein,low-carbohydrate diet wounded the demand for food high in corn derivatives because the vegetable is 80 percent starch.
Levin,of Potomac,Md.,was there with her husband. The retirees used to grow corn,but no longer do so because deer kept pilfering the crop.
She said she knew a lot about corn before the lecture,but was surprised at how many different products contained corn or a corn derivative.
Fleckenstein showed slide after slide revealing the dozens of uses for corn. He said that was “the most amazing thing I learned when I really researched it.” The list included adhesives,aspirin,batteries,spark plugs and cheese spreads.
Levin said she learned a few new preparation techniques.
Although the dishes Fleckenstein prepared for the audience required a few hours to put together,he said his favorite method is the most simple: freshly picked and roasted. And instead of smothering the cob with plain butter and salt,he recommends infusing melted butter with fresh herbs such as basil or cumin.
Fleckenstein recommended using fresh corn during the summer when the crop peaks,but he said frozen corn is a better alternative to canned corn in the winter.
The audience got to sample two dishes,creamy corn pudding and black bean,corn,mango and peach salsa,served with corn chips. The latter was the most popular,as several people approached the table after the lecture was over to ask for more.
Levin was one of them.
See Fleckenstein’s recipes in the story that follows.