A corncob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail not long after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Along with the cob was a check for $1,000. The explanation arrived the same day, in an e-mail I received from Glenn Roberts, a rare-seeds collector and supplier of specialty grains. Since Blue Hill is part of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a multipurpose farm and education center, Glenn wanted my help persuading the vegetable farmer to plant the corn in the spring. He said the corn was a variety called New England Eight Row Flint.
There is evidence, Glenn told me, that Eight Row Flint corn dates back to the 1600s, when, for a time, it was considered a technical marvel. Not only did it consistently produce eight fat rows of kernels (four or five was the norm back then; modern cobs have eighteen to twenty rows), but it also had been carefully selected by generations of Native Americans for its distinctive flavor. By the late 1700s the corn was widely planted in western New England and the lower Hudson Valley, and later it was found as far as southern Italy. But a brutally cold winter in 1816 wiped out the New England crop. Seed reserves were exhausted to near extinction as most of the stockpiled corn went to feed people and livestock.
The cob Glenn had sent was from a line that had survived for two hundred years in Italy under the name Otto File (“eight rows”), which he hoped to restore to its place of origin. By planting the seed, he wrote, we would be growing “an important and threatened historic flavor of Italy while simultaneously repatriating one of New England’s extinct foodways. Congratulations on your quest, Dan, and thank you for caring.” Glenn added, in case I didn’t care, that the Eight Row was “quite possibly the most flavorful polenta corn on the planet, and absolutely unavailable in the U.S.” At harvest he promised another $1,000. He wanted nothing in return, other than a few cobs to save for seed.
If his offer sounds like a home run for Stone Barns, it was. Here was a chance to recapture a regional variety and to honor a Native American crop with historical significance. For me, it was a chance to cook with an ingredient no other restaurant could offer on its menu (catnip for any chef) and to try the superlative polenta for myself.
Yet I carried the corncob over to Jack Algiere, the vegetable farmer, with little enthusiasm. Jack is not a fan of growing corn, and, with only eight acres of field production on the farm, you can’t blame him for dismissing a plant that demands so much real estate. Corn is needy in other ways, too. It’s gluttonous, requiring, for example, large amounts of nitrogen to grow. From the perspective of a vegetable gardener, it’s the biological equivalent of a McMansion.
In the early stages of planning Stone Barns Center, I told Jack about a farmer who was harvesting immature corn for our menu. It was a baby cob, just a few inches long, the kernels not yet visible. You ate the whole cob, which brought to mind the canned baby corn one finds in a mediocre vegetable stir-fry. Except these tiny cobs were actually tasty. I wanted to impress Jack with the novelty of the idea. He was not impressed.
“You mean your farmer grows the whole stalk and then picks the cobs when they’re still little?” he said, his face suddenly scrunched up, as if he were absorbing a blow to the gut. “That’s nuts.” He bent over and nearly touched the ground with his right hand, then stood up on his toes and, with his left hand, reached up, high above my head, hiking his eyebrows to indicate just how tall a corn’s stalk grows. “Only after all that growth will corn even begin to think about producing the cob. That big, thirsty, jolly green giant of a stalk—which even when it produces full-size corn has to be among the plant kingdom’s most ridiculous uses of Mother Nature’s energy—and what are you getting for all that growth? You’re getting this.” He flashed his pinky finger. “That’s all you’re getting.” He rotated his hand so I could see his finger from all angles. “One tiny, pretty flavorless bite of corn.”
One summer when I was fourteen years old, Blue Hill Farm, my family’s farm in Massachusetts, grew only corn. No one can remember why. But it was the strangest summer. I think back to it now with the same sense of bewilderment I felt as a child encountering the sea of gold tassels where the grass had always been.
Before Blue Hill Farm became a corn farm for a summer, I helped make hay for winter storage from one of the eight pasture fields. We began in early August, loading bales onto a conveyor belt and methodically packing them, Lego-like, into the barn’s stadium-size second floor. By Labor Day the room was filled nearly to bursting, its own kind of landscape.
Making hay meant first cutting the grass, which—for me, anyway—meant riding shotgun in a very large tractor for hours each day, crouching silently next to one of the farmers and studying the contours of the fields. And so, by way of no special talent, just repetition, I learned to anticipate the dips and curves in the fields, the muddy, washed-out places, the areas of thick shrubbery and thinned grasses—when to brace for a few minutes of a bumpy ride and when to duck under a protruding branch.
I internalized those bumps and curves the way my grandmother Ann Strauss internalized the bumps and curves of Blue Hill Road by driving it for thirty years. She always seemed to be going to town (to get her hair done) or coming back (from running errands). Sometimes my brother, David, and I were with her, and we used to laugh in the backseat, because Ann (never “Grandma,” never “Grandmother”) rounded the corners in her Chevy Impala at incredible speeds, maneuvering with the ease and fluency of a practiced finger moving over braille. Her head was often cranked to the left or to the right, antennae engaged, inspecting a neighbor’s garden or a renovated screened-in porch. (She sometimes narrated the intrigue happening inside.) During these moments her body took over, autopiloting around corners without having to slow down, swerving slightly to avoid the ditch just beyond Bill Riegleman’s home.
Often, on the last leg of the drive, Ann would tell us the story of how she came to buy the farm in the 1960s, a story she had told a thousand times before. Back then, the property was a dairy operation owned by the Hall brothers, whose family had farmed the land since the late 1800s.
“You know, I used to walk up this road every week for years; sometimes every day,” she would say, as if telling the story for the first time. “I loved Blue Hill Farm more than any place in the world.” At the top of Blue Hill Road was four hundred acres of open pasture. “But what a mess! I couldn’t believe it, really. They had cows pasturing in the front yard. The house was run-down, and so dirty. They didn’t have a front door—climbed in and out through the kitchen window, for heaven’s sake. And you know what? I loved it. I loved the fields, I loved the backdrop of blue hills, I loved that I felt like a queen every time I came up here.”
Whenever Ann saw the Hall brothers, she would let them know she wanted to buy the farm. “But they just laughed. ‘Ms. Strauss,’ they’d say, ‘this farm’s been in our family for three generations. We’re never selling.’ So I’d return the next week, and they’d say the same thing: ‘Never selling.’ This went on for many years, until one day I arrived at the farm and one of the brothers came running over, out of breath. ‘Ms. Strauss, do you want to buy this farm?’ Just like that! I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even let me answer. ‘This morning my brother and I got into the biggest fight. If we don’t sell now, we’re going to kill each other.’ I said I was interested. For sure I would buy a piece of it. ‘Ma’am,’ he said, ‘we’re selling it now—the whole thing, or forget it. Right now.’
“So I said yes. I hadn’t even been inside the farmhouse, and I didn’t know where the property began and where it ended. But it didn’t matter. What else was I going to say? I just knew this was the place.”
The dairy part of Blue Hill Farm disappeared with the Hall brothers, but Ann began pasturing beef cattle, because she wanted the fields to remain productive and because she enjoyed showing off the view to her friends; the image of cows dotting the iconic New England landscape is still fit for a coffee table book.
At the time, I didn’t know about the importance of preserving that kind of view. I just enjoyed the tractor rides, the look back at the field lined with the long, curving windrows of just-cut grass, and then, as I got older, the hard work of baling and storing hay for the winter.
Which, as it happened, suddenly came to an end because of the summer of corn. The maize invasion meant the cows grazed at another farm, which meant the hours of fixing fences and lugging salt licks and watching the herd lie and chew cud before a rainstorm came to an end, too. And since you don’t tend to a field of corn—in the same way you don’t really tend to a houseplant—it meant the baler and the hay wagons, the farm interns, the red Ford F-150 pickup truck, the big iced tea jug, and all the sweaty work went with them.
To look out from the front porch at what had always been fields of grass transformed suddenly into amber fields of corn felt not quite right. Same home, new furniture. Endless rows of corn are one of those things that are beautiful to behold at a distance. They tremble in great waves with the slightest breeze, and you think of beauty and abundance. Up close it’s a different story. For one thing, the abundance is relative. We can’t eat feed corn—I tried to that summer. The enormous cobs line the stalks like loaded missiles, tasting nothing like the sweet stuff we chainsaw through in August. And there’s little in the way of beauty. The long, straight rows take on a military-like discipline. They cut across bare soil, hard corners and creased edges replacing the natural contours of the field that I once knew so well.
I handed Jack the Eight Row Flint cob from Glenn and explained the situation, fearing that if the idea of growing corn offended him, the check for $1,000 might upset him even more. But I was wrong about both.
He loved the idea. “Look,” Jack said to me—and in Jack’s parlance, “Look” is a happy thing to hear. “Look” says: I know I may have given you some differing opinion in the past, but there are exceptions to my rule, and this is one of them. “This corn is the rare case of flavor driving genetics,” he said, reminding me of the generations of farmers who had selected and grown Eight Row Flint for its superior flavor, not solely for its yield, as is the case with most modern varieties. “How often do you get to be a part of that in your lifetime?”
So far, so good. But Jack went a step further. He planted the Eight Row Flint like the Iroquois planted most of their corn—alongside dry beans and squash, a companion planting strategy called the Three Sisters. On the continuum of farming practices, Three Sisters is at the opposite end from how corn is typically grown, with its military-row monocultures and chemical-fed soil. The logic is to carefully bundle crops into relationships that benefit each other, the soil, and the farmer. The beans provide the corn with nitrogen (legumes draw nitrogen from the air into the soil); the corn stalk provides a natural trellis for the climbing beans (so Jack wouldn’t need to stake the beans); and the squash, planted around the base of the corn and the beans, suppresses weeds and offers an additional vegetable to harvest in the late fall.
It was a masterful idea—mimicking the successful Native American strategy while taking out a small insurance policy on the Eight Row Flint. Even if the corn failed to germinate, Jack could still harvest the other crops, and in the meantime he’d show visitors to the Stone Barns Center a valuable historical farming technique. And yet I couldn’t help but feel skeptical as I watched him plant the corn kernels and companion seeds into mounds of rich soil. I had nothing against honoring agricultural traditions, but I didn’t need a sisterhood of beneficial relationships. I needed a polenta with phenomenal flavor.
As luck would have it (or maybe it was the sisterhood, after all), the Eight Row Flint had nearly perfect germination. Following the harvest in late September, Jack hung the corn upside down in a shed and waited for the moisture to evaporate. By late November, just in time for the long winter march of root vegetables, he triumphantly set a dried cob on my desk. It looked nearly too perfect, like a prop for an elementary-school production of the First Thanksgiving.
“Voilà!” he said, so pleased with himself he seemed to wriggle with the sheer joy of it. “They’re ready to go. Tell me when you want them.”
“Today!” I was feeding off Jack’s energy. “We’ll make polenta and then . . .” And then I realized something I hadn’t considered: the corn needed to be ground. I didn’t have a mill.
The truth is that I had never really considered the corncob behind the cornmeal. It hadn’t crossed my mind once in twenty years of preparing polenta. Polenta was polenta. Of course I knew it came from corn, just as I knew bread came from wheat. Beyond the obvious, I had never needed to know more.
A week later, just before dinner service, our new tabletop grinder arrived. The engine whirred as it pulverized the kernels into a finely milled dust. I toasted the ground maize lightly and cooked it right away in water and salt. I’d like to say I cooked the Eight Row Flint the way Native Americans cooked it, stirring a clay pot all day with a wooden spoon over an open hearth. But the pot was carbonized steel, the spoon metal, and the hearth an induction cooktop that heats by magnetic force. It didn’t matter. Before long the polenta was smooth and shiny. I continued stirring, which is when suddenly the pot began smelling like a steaming, well-buttered ear of corn. It wasn’t just the best polenta of my life. It was polenta I hadn’t imagined possible, so corny that breathing out after swallowing the first bite brought another rich shot of corn flavor. The taste didn’t so much disappear as slowly, begrudgingly fade. It was an awakening. But the question for me was: Why? How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal? It’s really not too much to ask of polenta to actually taste like the corn. But back then, I couldn’t have imagined the possibility until it happened. Jack’s planting strategy, as artful as a sonnet, combined with the corn’s impeccable genetics, changed how I thought about good food, and good cooking.
With remarkable, almost ironic regularity, I have found myself repeating this kind of experience. Different farm, different farmer, same narrative arc. I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen. A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer—to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable.
This book is about these stories.
If that sounds like a chronicle of a farm-to-table chef, it is—sort of.