Saturday, January 09, 2016

Farm Bulletin: Growing a Better Popcorn

I had always assumed that farmers either bought seed from seed companies or saved seed from their own crops, simply replanting them every year. It never occurred to me that farmers could actually develop their own crops by selecting for various characteristics like flavor and the ability to thrive in the field in winter. This essay by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines his journey with one variety of corn to achieve a particular result—a perfect popcorn.

It came to us as "Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn," a dry mouthful by any measure, and one of numerous popcorn varieties we tried early in the corn project. We have found when seed house descriptions lovingly linger of the color of the kernel and its diminutive proportions, just around the corner disappointment also lingers. That is a certainty. A few years ago, Glass Gem corn was released with great fanfare. Rhapsodic descriptions of its immense and ancient beauty spilled forth. Our mailbox filled with forwarded links to the breathless description. Not a whisper about its flavor, though, and since then the hype has faded. The best we have heard is that it is not really bad. In contrast, the descriptions of the Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn made note of the buttery flavor, going so far as to assert that butter was wasted on it. That hooked us.

This year's harvest…that's alotta popcorn!

The first year we planted Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn we were immediately struck by what a mess it was, not just a plain, off-white kernel, but the ears were runty and malformed, a substantial proportion of kernels prone to silk cut, a defect which means they don't pop. The plants lodged—fell over—at the merest zephyr. Then there was the insanely long name. Linda Colwell helped us many a gloomy afternoon as we salvaged the early crops. The challenge posed by the litany of flaws could not distract us from the lovely flavor. Reminiscent of Osgood Fielding III* as he patiently hears out Daphne's long list flaws, no corn is perfect.

Amish Butter polenta, great with lamb (recipe).

With time, we have managed to eliminate most of the flaws in Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn. The geneticist Barbara McClintock describes the process as getting "a sense of the organism." Previously, we have described the process as developing a design brief. Once smitten, your focus shifts to teasing out certain qualities. The grower uncovers the genetic map walking down the row and observing each plant, cataloging the variation. One of the first flaws was easily eliminated by renaming it the not-quite-synonymous but much shorter "Amish Butter." From 38 letters down to an efficient eleven. Likewise, silk cut went rapidly from 38% to 11%, and now it is just a fraction of a percent. Slowly, other growers have followed suit on the name, some keeping the "flavored popcorn" as though it would clarify something.

Linda Colwell's Sibley squash tamales.

Early on, we also discovered is its fine quality as ground corn. Popcorn has the highest protein content of the corn types, and it makes perfect sense that this variety that happens to pop would make a good cornmeal for cooking up as polenta. The white polenta works well with fungi, cheese, lamb and seafood. It also makes a lovely hominy, superb in a seafood pozole. After the New Year, Linda came over with a selection of her expertly prepared Amish Butter tamales. Just as we have developed a sense of the organism, Linda has developed a keen sense of the ingredient. This is why we must leave out popcorn from its name, unless we are selling kernels for that purpose. No corn is perfect, but Amish Butter is damn close. Come to think of it, Jack Lemmon was pretty close to perfect as well.

* Osgood Fielding III (Character)
from Some Like It Hot (1959)

Osgood Fielding III (l, played by Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (played by Jack Lemmon)

Jerry: Oh no you don't! Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.
Osgood: Why not?
Jerry: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.
Osgood: Doesn't matter.
Jerry: I smoke! I smoke all the time!
Osgood: I don't care.
Jerry: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.
Osgood: I forgive you.
Jerry: [tragically] I can never have children!
Osgood: We can adopt some.
Jerry: But you don't understand, Osgood! Ohh...
[Jerry finally gives up and pulls off his wig]
Jerry: [normal voice] I'm a man!
Osgood: [shrugs] Well, nobody's perfect!
[Jerry looks on with disbelief as Osgood continues smiling with indifference. Fade out]

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