Corn Theme and Activities
Autumn is a great time to have a corn/popcorn theme. October is National Popcorn Popping Month. Thanksgiving is also a great time for learning about harvest and foods. Corn is in season and is a fun vegetable to learn about.
Corny Songs, Poems and Fingerplays
I'm A Little Cornstalk (Tune: I'm A Little Teapot)
I'm a little cornstalk tall and stout,
see me grow and watch me sprout.
When I'm brown, you can shuck me down.
Boil me up and I'm the best in town.
See the Little Kernel (Tune: I'm A Little Teapot)
See the little kernel in the pot,
Turn on the heat and watch it hop.
When it gets all warmed up, it will pop.
Mmmm, it tastes good when it’s hot!
I'm A Stalk of Corn (Tune: I'm A Little Teapot)
I’m a stalk of corn growing high
Here are my husks oh so dry
When you pull them back
You will find
Juicy kernels sweet as pie
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Pop! Pop! Pop! (clap for each Pop!)
Put the corn into the the pot.
Pop! Pop! Pop! (clap for each Pop!)
Shake and shake it 'til it's hot.
Pop! Pop! Pop! (clap for each Pop!)
Lift the lid and what have you got?
Pop! Pop! Pop! POPCORN! (clap for each Pop! Jump up on POPCORN!)
One little kernel (Hold up one finger)
Sleeping in the pot. (Curl up and pretend to sleep)
Turn on the heat
And watch it pop. (Jump into the air)
Popping, hopping popcorn (Hop around)
A munchy, crunchy treat. (Pretend to eat)
Pour on the butter (Pretend to pour on butter)
And let me eat! (Pretend to eat)
- Use dried corn cobs for painting rollers.
- Put dried corn into a toilet paper tube, seal and decorate for a homemade maracas
- Dip the ends of corn husks into paint and then brush the paint on paper.
- Indian Corn Craft - You can use either a toilet paper tube or cut out form in cardboard for the ear. Let children shred and then crumple pieces of colored tissue paper to glue on.
- Popcorn Collage - Have children paint a picture with colored glue, then press popcorn onto the glue for a popcorn picture.
Corny Math and Science
- Corn Graph - Talk about the different ways we eat corn (on the cob, canned corn, popcorn, etc.) Make a bar chart of the different ways to eat corn. Give each child a sticker and have them place their sticker in the column of their favorite way to eat corn.
- Muffin Tin Math - Place cupcake liners with different numbers in a muffin tin. Have children count out matching number of corn kernels in each tin.
- Corny Differences - Buy popcorn still on the ear. Put this on a science table along with un-popped popcorn and popped popcorn so that children can see and feel the differences.
- Popcorn Kernel Table - Fill a sensory table with lots of popcorn kernels. Provide cups, bowls, funnels, etc. to allow them to explore and play in just like they would with sand.
- Popcorn Volcano Eruption - Spread out a large clean sheet and have the kids sit outside the edge. Place a popcorn popper with NO lid in the middle of the sheet. Watch the "volcano" erupt and shoot "hot lava" all over the sheet.
- Popcorn Dance - Fill small a glass jar 3/4 full of water. Mix in 2 tablespoons of baking soda and mix well. Add a drop or two of food coloring and 10 to 15 popcorn kernels. Then add a few drops of vinegar. The kernels will start to move in one or two minutes.
- Parachute Popcorn - Place a number of beanbags, small balls, or cottonballs onto a parachute. Shake to make them pop up like "popcorn".
- Grow Popcorn in a Bag - Take a plastic Zip-loc bag, put cotton balls in it and saturate cotton balls with water. Put popcorn kernels into the bag; seal it and tape to a window. Add water as needed and watch the plants grow. Transfer to potting soil later.
- Popcorn Balls - Put 12 cups of popcorn in a bowl. Melt ¼ cup margarine and a 10 ½ ox bag of mini marshmallows. Add 1 3 oz pack of plain or flavored gelatin. Mix and let cool slightly. Coat hands with cooking spray and form balls. Let set on waxed paper.
- Popcorn seasoning - Make several batches of popcorn. When the popcorn has cooled off, have the children split the popcorn up into several Zip-loc bags. Pour melted butter into each bag. Sprinkle a dry ingredient into the bags, close the top, and have your children shake it. Some choices for dry ingredients are cinnamon, sugar, dry ranch, dry cheese, garlic powder, seasoned salt, etc. Allow children to dry the different seasonings and talk about (or graph) which they like best.
Other Corn Resources
By late summer, most of the corn in America is head high and bristling. The stalks stand shoulder to shoulder like an army without rank, their sharp-edged, swordlike leaves forming a nearly impenetrable wall. A modern cornfield would have rebuffed Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” because there are no rows to speak of, only a dense lattice of intersecting spears. This corn — grown by the tens of millions of acres — has been genetically engineered, altered by having stacks of apparently desirable traits wedged into its genetic code. Saving the kernels of engineered corn in the fall to plant in the spring is both illegal, because of company patents, and largely irrelevant, since the plants they yield, which contain a packet of foreign genes, won’t necessarily resemble the parent crop. Nearly all the corn you see anywhere in our nation of corn is this year’s model, new and, so they say, improved.
Genetically modified corn is the path industrial agriculture has chosen — a profoundly controversial one. But a growing movement of gardeners and small farmers is keeping alive the genetic diversity that modern agriculture has rejected.
It’s a movement committed to growing and saving heirloom seeds, traditional varieties that, in many cases, have only narrowly survived.
In July, I visited a cornfield that gave survival a new meaning. It was on the Tuscarora Reservation, just northeast of Niagara Falls, N.Y. A modern commodity corn farmer would have laughed at it from the air-conditioned cab of his $350,000 combine, and even a backyard gardener growing sweet corn would have found it puzzling. The rows were set wide, and the soil had not been hand-weeded, sprayed or “cultivated,” which is the name for mechanical weeding. It had been a dry season in the Niagara frontier. The cornstalks were waist high, and the leaves seemed to have opened their arms to the sun in a delicate arc. The tassels — the organs of germination — had barely begun to form.
I had the advantage of knowing what this field — part of a Tuscarora Community Supported Agriculture project — would eventually yield; otherwise I, too, would have been doubtful. Earlier that morning, I’d stopped by the office of the Tuscarora Environment Program. Neil Patterson Jr., the director there and co-author of a pictorial history of the Tuscarora Nation, handed me an ear of Tuscarora corn.
You may be thinking of Indian corn, picturing the ornamental, multicolored ears that seem to have been bred for Thanksgiving centerpieces. Or if you’ve spent time in the Southwest, an ear of Hopi blue corn may come to mind.
And while you contemplate those different types of corn, let me say how hard it is to see the antiquity in living agricultural plants, or in the seeds of such plants. It’s hard to visualize the antiquity in any plant, for that matter. A venerable redwood daunts you with its size, not its age, and when you stand beside a bristlecone pine — leaning along with it into the Utah wind — only the knowledge that it may be 5,000 years old keeps it from looking like rooted driftwood.
by the Tuscarora tribe since they lived in what was not yet the Carolinas.
The same is true of this corn. It has been grown by the Tuscarora since they lived in what was not yet the Carolinas, and for who knows how long before that. During the four-year Tuscarora war — which killed more than a thousand American Indians and settlers before its end in 1715 — the corn traveled with the Tuscarora in their episodic exodus from the South, through Pennsylvania, and into New York, where the tribe was adopted as one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in 1722.
Tuscarora corn flourished until the boom in highly mechanized industrial agriculture that began in the 1950s and then, like so many breeds and crop varieties across the country, it dwindled until only a few families were still growing it in the traditional way. Although the Tuscarora are showing a renewed interest in their corn, the whole year’s harvest could hang, braided in the husk, from a few rafters in a barn that used to belong, until his death in 2009, to Norton Rickard, a Tuscarora elder who devoted himself to keeping the knowledge — and the corn — alive.
Most corn narrows at both the tassel and stem ends.
The ear Neil Patterson put in my hand was not the least bit bulbous. The stem end was wider than the rest of the ear. A few rows of kernels above the stem, the ear’s circumference shrank and remained nearly constant until just before the tassel end, making it without question the most phallic ear of corn I’ve ever seen. It was longer than even the most up-to-date field corn of 2011. Its kernels were laid out in straight and regular rows, but they were enormous, like teeth in the overfilled mouth of a giant. They were also the color of teeth that people used to call white, before the movies and television changed our ideas about teeth. Each kernel was filled with what looked like white corn flour.
What all of this said to me was “selection” — the careful setting aside of ideal ears for next year’s planting, year after year, generation after generation, century after century. The way to assess Tuscarora corn is not to gauge its difference from the genetically engineered corn being grown in fields a few miles from the Tuscarora Nation. Gauge its difference instead from the species — or species plural — from which maize originated as long ago as the oldest bristlecone pine. It is a long way, geographically and temporally, from the tiny ancestral ears of Mesoamerican corn to Tuscarora corn. Embedded in the ear I was holding was not only the tremendous adaptability of Zea mays but also the will and the needs of a people, expressed family by family.
To call Tuscarora corn an heirloom variety is too simple. The word “heirloom,” as it’s used now, implies a broad inheritance from the past, the general release to the public of a plant variety that was once privately developed or has become commercially obsolete. A surprising number of heirloom vegetables listed in seed catalogs today were listed in seed catalogs decades ago until they were supplanted by later commercial introductions. And many heirloom varieties, of course, were homespun types developed or kept alive by one gardener or another until the boom in heirloom gardening over the past decade or so.
But Tuscarora corn grown on the reservation has been passed down through a closed community and is sold nowhere. And within that community it has never been wholly supplanted by another corn. It is the Tuscarora corn, still vital to the culture — the corn in corn soup, in corn bread. It is still roasted, dried and ground, or prepared by boiling it with hardwood ashes. It’s the corn at the heart of the Tuscarora Husking Bee, the corn whose husks are then braided by strong thumbs into long strings — 40 and 50 ears to a braid — and hung aloft where mice can’t reach it.
It’s easy to imagine Tuscarora corn somehow anchoring the tribe, which has been agricultural for much of its history, but that misses an essential part of its value. “It’s transportable,” Patterson said — a wealth, when dried and shelled, that is easily moved, easily transplanted, easily regenerated. Picture the Tuscarora carrying corn along with them on their long journey northward in the early 18th century. The trail they left behind them would have included a series of cornfields not very different from the one I saw. In the history of the Tuscarora, there is an unbroken garden leading from the past to the present, for the only certain way to ensure the vitality of this year’s seed is to bury it and wait for it to come up as next year’s seed.
ESSENTIALS: HEIRLOOM AGRICULTURE
For a farm-to-table dining experience heavy on heirloom produce, head to the combination farm and restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns (bluehillfarm.com) in the Hudson Valley, which serves three multicourse farmer’s feasts designed around the day’s harvest. Seed saving and heirloom ingredients are also central at Husk, the newest restaurant from the celebrated chef Sean Brock, in Charleston, S.C. (huskrestaurant.com).
Heirloom gardening is the focus at a growing number of farm stays. Ambrosia Farm in central New York, one of three stateside locations of the European agritourism chain Feather Down Farms (featherdown.com), specializes in heirloom vegetables. At the upscale Blackberry Farm (blackberryfarm.com), a 4,200-acre estate in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the renowned master gardener John Coykendall will walk you through the craft of seed-saving. Sustainable farming is emphasized at the historic Willow-Witt Ranch (willowwittranch.com), a popular farm stay in southern Oregon where prices are modest.
Every gardener needs encouragement, in and out of the garden. “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening” by William Woys Weaver is an essential guide, as are Amy Goldman’s wonderful trio of books, “The Heirloom Tomato,” “The Compleat Squash” and “Melons for the Passionate Grower.”
Nearly every seed catalog now contains some heirloom varieties, most of which — though not all — are also organic. Good sources are Comstock Garden Seeds (comstockferre.com), Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) and the venerable Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com). For heirloom varieties of fruit trees, try Trees of Antiquity (treesofantiquity.com). The best source for Native American corn is Native Seeds/Search (nativeseeds.org), which offers dozens of varieties of flour corn, popcorn, sweet corn and dent corn. Another excellent source for native corn is Sandhill Preservation Center (sandhillpreservation.com) in Calamus, Iowa.
To understand the fundamental principle of the heirloom movement, it’s best to save your seeds or participate in a seed-saving or seed-exchange project. Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) is the place to start. It offers heirloom varieties for sale, but it also serves as an entry point for learning about the real purpose of heirloom seeds, which is preserving genetic diversity.