Good Golden Bantam taste is in the sweet corn genes
The taste of sweet corn in the market has, to many palates, gotten better and better over the years. The taste of sweet corn that I grow is the same every year.
Still, my taste buds tell me that my corn tastes best.
It’s not from having a green thumb or a site particularly congenial to sweet corn; it’s all in the sweet corn’s genes.
Those good genes reside in the variety Golden Bantam, which debuted in 1902 and is, as far as I’m concerned, the tastiest corn there is. Seventyfive years ago, just about everyone would have agreed with me. When E.L. Coy sent the Burpee Seed Company those first 2 quarts of Golden Bantam seed, he also sent along a note that read, “You now have the very sweetest and richest corn ever known.”
HISTORICAL ACCLAIM FOR GOLDEN BANTAM
U.P. Hedrick wrote in “The Corns of New York” (1934) that Golden Bantam “has been for several years the most popular sweet corn for all purposes. The name has been so thoroughly impregnated in the minds of growers and consumers that many of them will not accept anything else.”
Golden Bantam erased a prevailing prejudice against yellow corns, which had been associated with livestock feeds.
Despite present and past rave reviews, Golden Bantam corn is neither as sweet nor as tender as what you’ll pick up these days off market shelves or at farmers’ markets. What Golden Bantam has going for it is flavor; each chewy kernel is packed with sweet, rich, old-fashioned corn flavor.
WHAT MAKES SWEET CORN SWEET
Sweet corns first appeared in a seed catalog in 1828, and for decades thereafter the goal was to eke out the most sweetness by developing better varieties and shortening the time between harvest and eating.
Golden Bantam and other traditional sweet corn varieties owe their sweetness to a single recessive gene known as sugary-1. The main drawback of this gene, as far as farmers were concerned, was that the kernels rapidly lost sugar as soon as the ear was picked. (That’s not an issue for home gardeners, who can drop ears into boiling water a few minutes after they are harvested.)
That goal of the sweetest sweet corn was perhaps too fully realized with the discovery about 50 years ago of the so-called shrunken-2 gene of sweet corn. (Dried seeds with this gene are very shrunken and wrinkled.) This recessive gene imparts an enormous amount of sweetness to corn, and harvested kernels hold their sweetness for days. The main drawback of this gene is that the kernels have somewhat tough skins. Also, shrunken-2 plantings must be isolated from sugary-1 plantings, or the corns cross-pollinate and neither planting yields a corn that is sweet at all.
Enter the sugary-enhanced gene, discovered in the 1960s. It works in concert with the old sugary-1 gene. Sugary-enhanced gene corn holds its sweetness for days after picking, has tender — some say creamy — kernels, and does not need isolation from pure sugary-1 corns.
WHAT TO PLANT
It’s all a matter of taste: If you want the sweetest of all corns, with a cracking texture, grow a shrunken-2 supersweet. If you want something less sweet but with good texture, grow a sugary-enhanced corn.
If your taste buds cry out for the richest corn flavor and you feel that today’s super sweet corns are just too sweet, things are not as simple as just growing Golden Bantam. Those 2 quarts of seed that Burpee received in 1902 were openpollinated Golden Bantam, meaning that the seeds had been and could be saved for generations.
But Golden Bantam was so good that it sired other “Golden Bantam” varieties, such as Extra Early Golden Bantam, another open-pollinated variety. Soon after hybrid corn entered the garden and farm scene in the 1920s, the hybrid variety Golden Cross Bantam was also developed. Besides other qualities, it had larger ears.
Fortunately, Early Golden Bantam, Extra Early Golden Bantam and Golden Cross Bantam, as well as the original Golden Bantam itself, are all still available today. They’re all good, but none beats the original.
This undated photo shows a basket of Golden Bantam corn grown and harvested in New Paltz, N.Y. Golden Bantam is an old-fashioned variety of sweet corn that, though less sweet than modern hybrid varieties, has a richer, cornier flavor.