Notes from Zone 6b - a kernel of wisdom
August 2nd, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman attempts to vegetable garden on a roof deck in Brooklyn, NY in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Feel free to taunt, advise or encourage her efforts as this series progresses.

This morning, I stood on my roof deck and made my African Guinea Flint corn have sex with itself.

Some folks knit, ride dirt bikes or collect small, disturbingly lifelike figurines of a baby Lord Voldemort. I get my kicks from raising heirloom vegetables.

The process isn't always quite so hands-on. Mostly, it's just a matter of sticking seeds or shoots in dirt, fertilizing, watering and presto - potatoes, tomatoes and radishes as far as the eye can see. And if you have the acreage, corn would probably not require the services of a social director.

The way corn propagation generally occurs is that stalks are planted in semi-dense blocks of rows. Male tassels at the top of the stalks produce pollen, which must be carried down to the silks emerging from the tips of newly-forming ears. Each silk strand corresponds to a kernel of corn and must be pollinated to assure that there will be no gaps on the cob.

Out in a commercial field or garden plot, gravity, wind and insects would assist with this process, and most importantly, there would likely be no shortage of pollen to ensure a hearty dusting. I, on the other hand, have four stalks. Just four, and they're growing in a galvanized tin tub on my Brooklyn roof deck at slightly different rates.

They need all the help they can get, which is why earlier today, I could be found outside, gently brushing pollen from tassel to silk with my fingers in the hopes of knocking up my corn. I may have been humming some Serge Gainsbourg and Barry White as I worked. These things happen.

But the embarrassing part? Before this, I cannot in all honesty say that I knew how corn...happens. I've been eating it all my life, from supermarkets and farm stands and lived across the road from a vast, undulating plain of it in grad school. I'd tried to grow it myself, on occasion - never to great success and it never occurred to me that perhaps there was something more to the whole process than plant, water, ears, shuck, eat.

Yes, clearly pollination has to take place at some point, but for the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans and okra I'd long grown (to varying degrees of success), the bees, butterflies and other winged things popping about from flower to flower seemed to do the trick. Corn doesn't have flowers - well, technically the tassels and silk are flowers - at least in the format I was used to; and it's actually a kind of grass.

Come to think of it, until I started growing them for myself from seed, I could not have, with any level of certitude, explained how exactly potatoes, artichokes, pattypan squash, horseradish, cauliflower or edible loofahs came into being. Blame my having fallen asleep on that day in elementary school, childhood in a suburb where the Chem-Lawn man was king or even my own lazy lack of exploration. I could cook the dickens out of these things but could not connect the items on the shelves and in the stalls (and if we're going back to my childhood, from the cans and frozen block) to how they'd come forth from the earth.

That's sad, and sadder still - I doubt I'm alone. And this is why I'm grateful for the emergence of chef/farmers like Charleston, South Carolina's Sean Brock, Greenville, South Carolina's Shaun Garcia who physically work the land on their own farms - and aren't afraid to evangelize about the importance of knowing where food comes from and what goes into growing it. Brock himself gave me, and other attendees of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, the rare heirloom kernels I used to grow the stalks to which I played Dr. Ruth earlier today, in the hope that increased propagation will keep this endangered strain from dying out completely.

Brock told me that he, himself likely won't even taste a kernel - he's saving his all for seed, to beget more seed and so on. I admire his restraint, but I'll have to nibble at least one ear and taste the fruits of my labor.

The farm-to-table movement is criticized by some as being elitist or precious - and sure, some of the culture around it may indeed be at times - but at its core, it's anything but. It's incredibly empowering to know whose hands touched the food I'm eating, how it was cared for, the way it formed and that some day, if push comes to shove, I could coax some into being - one blushing ear at a time.

Previously – Tubers on the roof and Letting failure bloom

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. JBJingles@Kat

    Great article! I did not know how baby corn kernnels came to be, so I found it very interesting, thank you. Can you post pictures when the corn are ready? I want to see if it worked... I have to live vicariously through others growing their own produce as I have way too many critters visiting the yard these days. :)

    August 3, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  2. JehseaLynn

    @RICHARD HOOD That *must* be just a username. I certainly hope it is, anyway. Surely your junk mail does not come addressed to "Dick Head".

    August 3, 2011 at 3:25 am |
    • Delta@Jessie Limp

      No it doesn't. It comes to him addressed as "Master of the Universe" and you will bow down to him.

      August 3, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • Pete

      I saw Chuck Norris delivering mail to the "Master of the Universe."

      August 3, 2011 at 8:36 am |
      • Chuck Norris

        Hey Pete, do moths have moth balls?

        August 3, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  3. GrammaMambo

    Kind of like pumpkin sex.

    August 2, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Linus

      The Great Pumpkin would never do that !

      August 2, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  4. SashaDee

    I worked for four years for a corn research company in Iowa, pollinating for ten hours a day. I could tell you a story or two but they mostly involve sweaty teenagers and aphids.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  5. fob

    Farm to table seen as elitist?! Really?! That surprises me. I think of it as my grandfather who worked out in his garden for years and years and then my grandma cooked whatever he picked.
    My sister in law, just hired a new chef/manager at her wood fired oven restaurant and he's from the area originally. They are going to be doing a lot more farm to table at the restaurant. I'm sooo excited about it. I think it just makes sense. It's the freshest ingredients you can find. He's using local corn for a vegetarian corn chowder that people are raving about.

    August 2, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • denim

      Yes, there are some stupid people out there who consider this kind of thing elitist. Like someone is locking them out of doing it themselves.

      August 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Real Food

      They forget that it wasn't very long ago that it was the poor people who worked their tails off on the farm to eat and the rich city folk who got to purchase food from elsewhere. These days we think of wealthy people eating fresh food from the garden and poor folk eating crap from cans and boxes. Either way, knowing where food comes from and how to grow it is a basic necessity for the survival of our species. Someone had better know where baby corns come from!

      August 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
      • Stew Pedassle

        ... there's a mommy corn and a daddy corn who love each other very much .....

        August 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • lisa

      part of the reason it's deemed elitist in places like brooklyn (where i actually live and base my business) is because of the influx of upper class into traditionally poor neighborhoods. if this kind of stuff was taught and shared with the natives it would be much more palatable to me.

      good read though.

      – lisa

      August 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  6. Mildred

    @RichardHead – It's legal in New York as long as it isn't really fun.

    August 2, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  7. RichardHead

    Soooo,this is what our fearless leader actually does on her Birthday....Forced cornication on a hot tin roof. Is a female vegetable domination video in the works? Is this legal in the State of New York? We will have to wait and see.

    August 2, 2011 at 8:12 am |
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