With the presidential campaign heating up, there’s a lot of talk about the American Dream right now. Today, after biting in to the first ear of corn I ever grew, I am pretty sure I am living it.

Scientists believe that people living in Northern America began cultivating ”corn” more than 7000 years ago. By saving the kernels of the best examples of teosinte, a wild grass, for many generations, corn or maize became a staple of the aboriginal diet in the Western Hemisphere. Now, a starting material for several fuels, animal feed, and found in many processed foods, it’s hard to imagine modern life without it.

Much has been written about the exquisite joy of eating fresh corn on the cob, so I won’t add to that canon. Instead, I researched some alternative uses for the parts of corn we don’t usually eat.

What to do with the rest of the corn plant?

  • Scarecrows! The husks are the stuffing as well as the covering for the head and the stalks make the arms and legs.
  • Dry the leaves and stalks, grind them and use as mulch. This material is great to keep strawberries dry and off the ground while retaining moisture for the roots.
  • Compost. This takes a while, up to 6 months if the plant isn’t chopped up. One way to chop: stuff everything in a bucket and attack with a string trimmer. Add good nitrogen sources like grass clippings to offset the heavy carbon load.
  • Craft projects: corn husk dolls, placemats, votives, trivets…
  • For the serious crafter or back-to-the-lander, take inspiration from Native American uses of maize: moccasins, bed mats, floor coverings…

Healthy Appalachian Humitas

Straight from our Grow Appalachia “test kitchen,” this recipe is inspired by the Peruvian version of tamales called humitas (oo-ME-tas). Rather than use corn flour as in tamales, humitas use fresh corn and are steamed. We adapted the recipe to account for the differences in our sweet corn and South American corn, “choclo.” Also, we substituted ingredients that are easier to come by and got rid of the generous helping of lard found in authentic ones. They are fun to make and eat—when you wrap the filling in the corn husks they look like little presents!

5-6 Ears of fresh corn in the husk
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used monterey jack)
1 fresh green pepper (sweet or hot, you decide)
1 tsp cumin powder
1 clove garlic
1 cup cornmeal
¼ cup milk
1 egg
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin powder

  1. Carefully shuck the corn to preserve the inner husks and cut the kernels off with a sharp knife.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. The mixture should somewhat hold its shape in a spoonful. Add more cornmeal if it’s really runny or more milk if too thick.
  3. Overlap the thick ends of 2 husks by about 3 inches to make a little boat. Spoon in as much of the mixture as your little boat will hold. Fold over the ends and tie with a skinny strand of husk or leaf of corn. This takes a little practice, but even our messiest ones turned out fine.
  4. Steam for 30-40 minutes tightly covered in a steamer. I layered mine about 4 deep and they seemed to cook evenly.
  5. Cool slightly unwrap, and eat. (not the husks)

This recipe made 25 slightly savory, basic humitas. They could also be filled with raisins and cinnamon for a sweet treat or spiced chicken and pork for something heartier. You would just nestle a small spoonful of special filling into the corn mixture in each one. Experiment and enjoy the American Dream!