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 Going Green: One family’s journey towards Harmonious Seasonality

EnvironmentVol. I, issue 13: Corn

by Sherian Valenti

I was in the break room at work last week, when one of my coworkers was eating an ear of corn for lunch. He commented that corn had become so sweet that it no longer had any corn flavor. Accustomed as I am to fresh, local, sweet corn, I thought it was a strange comment, but he often makes strange comments, so I let it pass for the moment, but I didn’t forget about it. And since it is the middle of August, and the only things I want to eat are cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes, I ate corn on the cob that evening, purchased from the same local grower as the corn my coworker was eating. It was quite good and very inexpensive.

The next day, because it was still the middle of August, and still the only things I want to eat are cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes, I went to buy corn again. The difference this time was that were I went to buy it, they had only local, ORGANIC corn. It was MUCH more expensive (nearly three times the price as the corn I bought the day before), and it was much smaller (by a third, at least), but because I had other things to buy at that store and didn’t want to drive across town to buy the cheap corn, I had expensive, organic corn for supper. And unlike the cheap corn, it tasted like corn, not sugar, and it was at the moment of my first bite that I understood what my coworker meant...

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The day following that, I returned to buy more of the expensive, organic corn, and I have eaten fresh corn in gustatory heaven ever since.

I have not been oblivious to the machinations of the large agribusiness conglomerations and their efforts to introduce GMOs to every level of our worldwide community, and as much as I deplore the addition of corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup to every imaginable food product, I have not, up until now, taken as firm a stand as I should have on this issue. It is true that I stopped buying my favorite tortilla chips when I saw that they are now a ConAgra brand, but I haven’t pushed the corn issue before this week.

I had a crisis of conscience a few weeks ago when a friend brought corn on the cob to dinner at my house. I am fanatical about buying only locally grown corn during the proper corn growing season (which is why I eat it nearly every day, as it is a long 10 ½ month wait between the last ear of corn in the fall to the first ear of corn the following summer). But while my friend holds the same opinion as myself, she is not as adamant as I am in upholding this opinion, and she brought corn that had been husked and packaged on a Styrofoam tray, shrink-wrapped in plastic. I would never, under any circumstances, have bought this corn on the grounds of both its pedigree and its packaging, but since she had already paid the money, and she couldn’t return the product, I gently voiced my objection to her choice, and then, for want of a fresh vegetable and to avoid insulting my friend, ate the corn anyway. And to tell the truth, it didn’t taste that bad. It was crisp and sweet. I was both surprised and dismayed, and we spent several minutes discussing how mutated that corn must have been to be that good that long after it had been picked and shipped from wherever it had been grown. I have been suffering from a guilty conscience ever since.

I have a nice collection of old cookbooks, and I subscribe to the big cooking magazines (this brings up a very un-green paper issue, but I will save that for later), so I have read countless stories about how once-upon-a-time, when one wanted to eat corn in its original genetic form, one should best put a pot of water on to boil, run out the corn field, gather the corn, and then run back to the house, and deposit the seconds-old corn in the boiling water, for if one waited any longer than that, the sugars would have already turned to starch. And this is in effect what I remember happening during my childhood (in the 1970s), as my mother would send me to pick the corn my father grew while she heated the water. But because I have not lived in a place where I could grow my own corn for many years, I have been eating corn grown by others, and gradually, as corn had been selectively bred and genetically modified, I have forgotten the true taste of the corn of my youth, becoming increasingly accustomed to the increased sweetness and accompanying flavor changes. It was not until I ate the organic corn that I remembered how that long-ago corn tasted. It does, indeed, have a corn flavor. This is the first time I have promoted an organic item on the basis of flavor over the environmental benefits of organic agriculture. (I do eat and vigorously promote an organic yogurt solely on the taste—it is from only Jersey cows—so the fact that it is organic is simply a bonus.)

During my third expedition to buy organic corn, I noticed on the shelf in the baking aisle organic cornstarch. I debated several long minutes if I would buy the organic cornstarch; it was three times more expensive than regular cornstarch, and I didn’t need any cornstarch. I very seldom use cornstarch in anything other than macaroni and cheese, and I make macaroni and cheese only in the cold-weather seasons, and I never considered the logical fact that ordinary cornstarch is made from modified corn. But as I began to think about all the processed foods that contain cornstarch and corn syrup, I began to understand practically, and for the first comprehensive time, how entrenched genetically-modified corn really is, and it scared me. As a result, I have vowed to buy only organic corn products from this time forward. And no, I have not yet bought the organic cornstarch, as I still have part of a box non-organic cornstarch in my cupboard. The next question to settle is should I use the cornstarch I already have just because I already have it, or should I put it in the compost and move on to the organic cornstarch at my earliest convenience? Green frugality hates waste, but some waste might be better than others, especially if it is composted and the paperboard package recycled…

I remember when I first read Bill McKibben’s article on eating only locally-grown food for a whole winter in the very un-green Gourmet magazine last year. I thought it was a very interesting concept, but I didn’t know how I would ever be able to manage it if I were to try. To make such a commitment myself, I was sure, was to commit to failure because every March I think the same thought: how did people ever survive the winter without lettuce? I can go a good long while, all through October, November, December, and January without much missing salads, but along about February, I start craving the tender young greens that make up lovely, brightly colored salads. Soon thereafter, I reach a point where I can’t get enough salad in the winter, and I vow to eat salad every day during the summer, which I do in June, when the lettuce is growing well in my garden. But McKibben’s experiment inspired many others better than me, and they have stepped up to the challenge. I commend the “localvores,” and I wish them well as I consider what it would mean for me to join their ranks. It is the right and proper way to live, but as so many others have commented before me, forgoing olive oil and lemons and bananas and coffee and tea and spices and chocolate so many other of life’s pleasures is a monumental undertaking, one to which we are not all suited. How can I reconcile this?

I do drink great quantities of tea, and sometimes I have a little coffee, and one cannot live without chocolate. I don’t know what I would do if could no longer use olive oil or lemons or have sweet, juicy, lovely clementines in the cold, dark days of November and December. Smoothies are just not right without the bananas. On the other hand, my children and I do pick several bushels of apples each fall which I make into applesauce (sweetened with local honey) and can, for the children’s oatmeal breakfasts all winter long. Last year they ate 36 quarts of applesauce between October and March, and if I had made more, they would have eaten more. That is a lot applesauce. And what is better than hearing your child proclaim in complete earnestness that “oatmeal and applesauce is the best breakfast ever!” (Few parents, I fear, will ever hear those words, but lucky mother that I am, I hear those words at least twice a week.)

I suppose I could begin cataloging in my pantry and assigning each a rating based on where it came from and the resources used to produce it and transport it to my house, and anything over a predetermined limit would have to go, but that would be an onerous project, not to mention slightly unrealistic. No, I think perhaps a better plan would be to read more labels more carefully. I buy very few processed foods, but I do like to buy some kinds of crackers regularly and special cookies for rare occasions. What few things I do buy, I will read the labels with greater scrutiny and eliminate any products that are not up to the new standard. There won’t be many that go, but what do go must do so.

In the meanwhile, since we in Vermont are a mere 4-6 weeks away from our first expected frost, I am going to plant some herbs in a pot by my kitchen window this winter. Thyme and rosemary and chives and parsley and basil, if I can get them to grow. Especially chives. Anything made with fresh herbs is better replacement for anything with an unsatisfactory greenness rating (whatever I might determine that to be), and it is good for the soul to see the bright green herbs growing on dark winter days. Kitchen herb gardens are absolute necessities. I highly recommend them.

On my way to gather planting supplies, however, I am going to check on that box of cornstarch to see how much is left in it, and read any labels I might find. I have been a careful shopper, but it is possible that I have overlooked some things. A new day is dawning, and it is time to turn over and turn around. What was once the status quo is no longer acceptable. It is a new world, and we must be brave in it. It is too bad I can’t grow corn in my kitchen by the window…




Copyright 2006, Sherian Valenti

Contact: [email protected]

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