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Beautiful Corn

Anna Lena Phillips

BEAUTIFUL CORN: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate. Anthony Boutard. New Society Publishers, $19.95.

Click to Enlarge ImageThe past few years have seen a spate of monographs on food plants, and it’s high time corn had its turn. In Beautiful Corn, farmer and naturalist Anthony Boutard offers the perspective of a cultivator of corn as well as a connoisseur. Part botanist’s guide to Zea mays and part farmer’s guide to its cultivation, the book is structured roughly around the growing season, beginning with seeds—their parts as well as how best to plant them—and returning to seeds near the end, with a chapter on how to save them for the next year’s plantings.

Boutard does not neglect the social history of corn, but his focus is on its manifestation in the present: varieties (popcorn, dent, flint and flour); successes and failures in planting; advantages and disadvantages of hybridization; and the work of maintaining heirloom varieties. Black and white photographs, along with illustrations by Esme F. Hennessy, appear throughout; a central color spread shows corn varieties and dissected kernels. (Hennessy’s illustration of a flour corn from the high Andes is shown above.) One chapter is devoted to cooking corn, with recipes for dishes that span the plant’s geographical reach: tamales, hominy, grits, polenta and spoonbread—a puddinglike delicacy I remember eating once in childhood and asking my mother to recreate for years thereafter. She could never recall the dish; I intend to prepare this recipe so we can both try it.

The book’s final chapter describes how the author and his wife, who together own and operate Ayer’s Creek farm in Gaston, Oregon, found that leaving corn stalks in the field over winter was a better practice than planting cover crop. He names the many species of bird that feed in the shelter of the dry stalks, and the winter plants that thrive there—vetches, borage, mustard, chicory. Readers will be left wanting a corn field—or at least a backyard plot—of their own.

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