DES MOINES, Iowa -- If we were to make a list of Iowa Icons and narrow it down to one, one which we might proudly choose to represent us, one which is both fondly remembered and anxiously anticipated -- it might be sweet corn.
“It’s like Christmas in July!” says one fan.
Its annual return is marked across the state.
“Woo-hoo!" says another. "Iowa corn, it’s Iowa corn!”
Roadside stands intercept daily commutes.
“People wait for the sweet corn," says professor ajay Nair of Iowa State's horticulture department. "They are anxiously waiting!”
And we’ve finally got it. Our palettes can shift into high gear.
“There’s nothing like having that first cob of sweet corn to tell you that summer’s really here,” says Ray Kruse, a sweet corn farmer and one of Nair's graduate students.
No one would be surprised to hear that we love our corn. We grow over 13,000,000 acres of it each year. But even though only a tiny fraction of that (.02%) is sweet corn, we still firmly believe that no one does it better.
“Iowa corn is the best, oh, yes," says Louie Helgenbrand of Dallas County.
Taste is a subjective thing, but scientists will tell you that Iowa DOES have the dirt on every other state. Literally.
“Excellent water-holding capacity," Nair points out with a handful of black central Iowa soil, "and the ability to hold onto the nutrients and make it available to the plant when the plant needs it.”
Iowa’s soil is great for sweet corn because Iowa’s soil is loaded.
“The average organic matter content in the soil here in Iowa is somewhere from 3-5%," Nair says. "And there will be states and there will be areas that are jealous of us.”
Iowa grows the same kind of sweet corn that everyone else does: hybrids known as SH-2 type and SE-type, developed for their higher sugar content and milky texture.
But scientists say it’s not the seeds or soil that make the biggest difference--it’s the fact that we eat it soon after it’s picked.
“In 24 hours, 60% of the sugar is lost," Nair says, "it goes into starch form.”
So we can agree that fresh Iowa corn is best, but what about another controversy like what’s the best way to cook it?
“Put it in the boiling water for 15 minutes," Helgenbrand smiles. "That’s the only way to do it.”
Chrissy Deardorff hears this all the time.
“This has been a great debate," she says outside her stand in Adel. "Some people say 8-10 minutes. My husband and my father-in-law will tell you that’s way too long.”
The Deardorffs willingly hand out advice along with the bags of corn.
“They say 3-4 minutes in boiling water; so you’re really just getting it hot.”
Professor Nair agrees; get it just hot enough to soften the cell walls and release the sugar.
He says storing uncooked sweet corn should be our biggest concern.
“The right temperature for sweet corn to be stored in 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 0 degrees Celsius, at a high relative humidity (85-90% relative humidity).”
Sweet corn can last up to 10 days in those conditions, but who could wait that long to make the NEXT decision: how to eat it!
“Butter…salt and pepper,” says Linda Neville of Bouton.
There, you’re on your own.
If there’s one more thing to add to the appeal of this Icon, it’s that we all know it’s only around for a few short months, and then it’s gone. But, it’ll be here next year, and the Iowans will be waiting.