Thursday, February 07, 2008

Farm Bulletin: Little Doves, Little Flowers or Le Popcorn

This week Carol and Anthony Boutard will be featuring their homegrown popcorn in addition to myriad heirloom dried beans, squash, dried peppers and roots at their stall at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. Find them between 10 am and 2 pm on Sunday.

Popcorn: Amish Butter & Pink Beauty

This ancient whole grain snack is called palomitas, "little doves," in Spanish. In other languages, it is called "little flowers." To the French, it is le popcorn. Until the 20th century, Americans referred to it as "parching corn." Given the French epithet, we were surprised there was no regression to calling it "parching corn" during that dark, Francophobic "liberty fries" era of the early 21st century.

A separate class of maize, popcorn has many ancestral traits. The kernels are small, pointed and arranged in an imbricated manner on very small ears, similar to the way dominoes rest upon one another when they fall. And, of course, they pop. Some of the most ancient remains of maize found, for example in the Bat Cave of New Mexico that was occupied 3,000 years ago, have popping type kernels. Pre-Columbian popping varieties of corn were found from New England to Peru. The diffusion of popcorn was accompanied by the manufacture of special clay vessels to pop the kernels. They were designed to contain the explosions while allowing the moisture released in the process to escape.

An effort must be made to keep popping, sweet, flour and flint strains of maize separate as they easily hybridize via the wind, resulting in the popping types losing their explosive oomph, the sweet types becoming starchy and tough and the flour types developing a flinty nature. Pre-Columbian cultures did a good job of developing and maintaining clean genetic lines of these various strains. In his treatise, Corn: Its Origin, Evolution and Improvement, Mangelsdorf notes that the indigenous Americans were expert corn breeders.

In an interesting digression, Mangelsdorf ponders whether their sheer love of the crop overcame the challenge of managing its complex genetics. Here is a man educated in the age of genetics, statistics and analytical biology grappling the most magnificent achievement of plant breeding, yet it was accomplished by anonymous individuals guided by custom and folklore. Paradoxically, the 20th century "scientific" contribution to maize has been almost entirely negative. In the modern hybrids we have succeeded in dramatically reducing the protein, vitamin and mineral content of the grain, and its flavor to boot. The kernels must be coated with powerful fungicides to aid germination, and the growing plants demand a full arsenal of chemicals in order to survive. The only charitable thing to say about these hybrids is that they produce great quantities of the depauperate grain. There is little to love in the modern hybrids.

Most commercial popcorn produced today is from carefully selected modern hybrid seeds from a narrow genetic base. The commercial varieties have a yellow aleurone layer. At the present, there are no transgenic (GMO) varieties of popcorn in commerce. Old varieties of popcorn have been preserved, and the flavor difference is readily apparent. They also have a wide range of aleurone layer colors, including white, yellow, red, pink and black. We grow two excellent popcorn varieties well suited to the short Willamette Valley growing season, and completely lovable as well.

"Amish Butter," also known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored," has been traced in the literature to the mid 19th century, though it is more ancient than that. Long popular among the Amish farmers of Pennsylvania, the variety was restored to the commercial seed trade by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in 1988. It is designated a RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) variety.

"Pink Beauty" is from the Sand Hill Preservation Center, the same people from whom we order sweet potato slips. The center, run by Glenn and Linda Drowns, functions as a source of genetic material for farmers, rather than a regular seed company. We are not sure what prompted us to grow it; Glenn simply notes that the flavor is good. The understated "tastes good" seems to hook us every time. Tasting it, we find the kernels are even more tender than Amish Butter, and the flavor is different as well. Very satisfying. With Pink Beauty, there are a few more popless kernels at the bottom of the pan. We hope to select out better popping ears for our seed stock.

Neither Amish Butter nor Pink Beauty needs anything more than a light sprinkle of salt. We pop ours in a pan with a small amount of grape seed oil, using a spatter screen in place of a lid to allow the moisture to escape. Our friend Beth noted that these older varieties are more tender and better flavored when cooked in a pan with oil, rather than an air popper. We bought an air popper last week as a tool for testing popping rates for seed ears, a critical factor when saving the seeds. We have to agree with Beth, the pan and oil is the better way.

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