Popcorn Made to Order

A corn kernel has three main parts: the outer pericarp, the starchy endosperm on the inside and a bit of germ, which is the embryonic corn plant.  Flint corns are mostly endosperm which can contain 14-15% moisture by weight.  Flint corns, also have a pericarp which is thick and tough. When the kernel is heated to 300°F the water (and some oils) in the endosperm are unable to escape the kernel as steam because of the "enamel"hard pericarp of the popcorn varieties.  The pericarp holds until the steam reaches about 350 degrees.  There is quite a bit of pressure that builds and eventually the pericarp explodes and the intense pressure literally expands the starch and proteins of the endosperm as an airy foam.  "Pop!"

Keeping the steam inside until the whole thing blasts apart in one super-heated POP is what distinguishes popcorn from other flint corns.  Some very specialized breeding today centers on getting the pericarp to disintegrate in the explosion.  Often it forms two chewy hulls attached to the corn ball.  Japanese Hulless is an old open pollinated variety which is used in this kind of breeding work.  Another concern is the drying and storage of the corn so that just the right amount of moisture is contained in the endosperm for the kernel to reach it's expansion potential.  Drying the cobs for a few weeks in a sheltered area at normal room temperature will probably do it.  Then seal the kernels in a jar and store in a cool place.  No dessicant please.
 

Long Island Seed's new"Autumn Delight" 

Long Island Seed's new"Autumn Delight" 

Autumn Delight is a popcorn in progress like many of our breeding developments and like most all of them it depends on the work of so many others starting with the original Americans.  Popcorn was grown by the Indians of Mexico and the Southwest thousands of years ago and it was distributed all the way north to the Dakotas and New England through pre Columbian trade routes where it became adapted to the growing conditions and needs of each tribe.  There are descriptions of the preparation of popcorn brought to the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  It wasn't just a snack food but used in the making of native fermented beverages and a variety of cooked foods like stews.  Mostly lost, are the ceremonial uses of distinct corns maintained for color or kernel shape.  Corn was an important cultural element and the natives caring for their tribal corns did a better job of preserving the diversity and gene pool of maiz than we have since the advent of the modern "hybrids".  

Popping corn is a type of flint corn.  Flint corns are sold at farmstands as decorative Indian Corns with their multicolored kernels.  They are also favored corns in the northeast because they have a tough pericarp that prevents the corn from molding in damp conditions.  Flour and Sweet Corn is much more difficult to store unless conditions are very dry.  Natives could secure their stash of flint corn in underground storage caches without the same concern about their grain rotting.  Often the flint corn would be ground into a very hard meal.  Not all flint corn will pop like popcorn does and so;  as decorative as the bundle of Indian Corn you hang on the door, it's just not going to do much in your corn popper.  Grind it up for an authentic corn meal and make some fried bread or hush puppies.  Most people don't though.

That's a shame I thought. 

And so for the last few years I've been planting really good quality popcorn.  Those that have good to excellent expansion ratio.  To these I introduce "Indian Corn" genetics.  There are colorful little popcorn cobs that you see bunched up for decorations like Cutie Pops.  We worked with those for a while.  Very nice color spectrum but very very small popcorn kernels.  My interest is in a larger good quality popcorn with nice large decorative ears.  Hang it up like bunched Indian Corn, take it off the door after Thanksgiving dinner; then pop it, maybe in a covered frying pan over a crackling wood fire (do I digress?) for a traditional snack.  I appreciate the work of Southern Seed Exchange, Harris Seeds and J.L. Hudson, Seedsman as I use some of their cultivars to produce the subdued Earth tones I like in "Autumn Delight".

Almost always something surprises me as I work through one project after another and I'm a bit puzzled where it came from.  Such is this mid-sized popcorn.  One plant in the entire field produced these three multicolored cobs.  Good looking and good popping but what startled me were the very attractive purple husks.  I've seen this trait in some Indian Corns and Sweet Corns.  For a while I was interested in breeding the genetics of foliage corns into my popcorns.  I'm wondering if this harkens to those generally unsuccessful breeding experiments!  One of the decisions I will have to make next year is whether to isolate this from the others or allow more crossing with my main popcorn project, "Autumn Delight" in order to develop a percentage of purple husks in the mix.