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Not Just Popcorn

photo by Summer Tomat

Farmer Lloyd Johnson has a quiet kind of enthusiasm, but it’s unmistakably strong and so earnest.  He patiently weighs his organic produce, his die-hard tomato aficionados handing him bags brimming with heirloom fruits, while I pester him for information.  He grew up in Illinois to a family steeped in farming tradition.  He has been farming as long as he can remember, first with toy livestock and tractors, and now as the owner and operator of the venerated Lloyd’s Produce.  His grandparents, he tells me, cultivated his love and understanding for high quality produce.  “My grandparents turned me on to real food,” he relates.  He remembers observing his grandfather enjoying a radish with his beer, and his grandfather expressing, “Now this is a good radish!”  It is this emphasis on intense and true flavor that guides him in how he selects the varietals he grows and when he harvests them.  He points me to some of his tomatoes—he waits for each tomato to be ripe on the vine before he hand picks each one.  This is why the man has die-hard fans.

Sarah and the farm stand :: photo by LP

Also on his bountiful stand are all the gems of this sort-of-summer-sort-of-fall time—gypsy peppers, Listada de Gandia eggplant, and butternut squash.  In addition to the beautiful fresh bounty of Lloyd’s stand is his popcorn—unexpected treasures of saffron and deep blue.  He describes the pleasure of growing corn—how quickly the plants grow, full of regality and character, and when he shucks two ears of corn for me, I am struck by their deep color.  The two varieties Lloyd grows are “shaman’s blue,” an intense blue-violet, and “robust,” a rich goldenrod.

And then, like the jack-of-all-trades most farmers are (Lloyd has also been a truck driver, stay-at-home dad, construction worker, and oil field worker, and has a degree in art), Lloyd gives me a little science lesson.  For every strand of pollinated corn silk, a kernel of corn develops (those empty hollows are a result of unpollinated threads).  He shows me an ear of the “robust” variety, which is lightly speckled by blue kernels.  He explains that the blue color is the dominant gene, so when a yellow corn silks gets pollinated by blue corn, it results in blue kernels on the mostly orange corn ear.  On the farm, the side of the orange corn that grows next to the blue corn is mostly blue.

Corn’s history is as rich as its color and flavor.  It had been cultivated in Central America by at least 3500 B.C.  It was  a staple in the cuisines of the Incans, the Mayans, Aztecs, and civilizations of the American Southwest, and continues to be throughout the globe, and is the second most widely planted crop in the world (after wheat).  Native Americans ground it into meal and then cooked it with an alkali, as found in ashes or lye, to make masa.  After its Columbian introduction to Europe, corn became an almost instant dietary mainstay, especially as a dried commodity in the winter, but a mysterious illness followed—pellagra.  This syndrome’s appearance had a direct correlation with consumption of corn, and was documented as early as the 18th century in Italy as occurring in sharecroppers who relied on eating polenta, cooked corn meal mush.  It wasn’t until the 1930’s that niacin, also known as vitamin B3, was determined as being the culprit.  The niacin that exists in corn is bound with another molecule, which makes it impossible for the body to break down and absorb.  The only way to unleash the niacin in corn is to treat it with an alkali, which is, of course, the traditional method of preparation by corn’s first cultivators.

Pop corn represents the oldest of five types of corn.  The others are flint, dent,

Lloyd and his popcorn :: photo by LP

flour, and sweet.  Pop and flint corn are protein rich.  Dent, so called because of the dent that develops on a dried kernel, is typically only used for livestock feed (approximately three quarters of the total corn grown in the United States is used for livestock feed).  Flour corn is high in starch, but low in protein, and is almost exclusively used by Native Americans.  Sweet corn is perhaps the most widely recognized corn, with its plump kernels full of simple sugars and low in starch.

But now that summer is over, and the cool weather is setting in, the time for sweet corn is gone, and the time to enjoy some of Lloyd’s delicious pop corn, butternut squash, and other cool weather vegetables is here.

You can find Lloyd and his lovely wife Sarah at the Wednesday and Saturday Davis Farmers’ Markets.

Davis Farmers’ Market—Wednesdays 4:30-8:30 through October 27th and Saturdays 8:00-1:00 year round

learn more about Lloyd his farm in this article for the Davis Farmers’ Market

read this article and more at www.bluebird-bakeshop.com

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