Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
The first time I had corn was sometime in the 70s – from a jar of mixed pickles. I loved it. It was about the same time when, as seven-year-olds, we kids of the neighborhood broke into a farmer’s corn field and helped us to corn on the cob. I loved that, too. You didn’t find fresh corn in German supermarkets back then. I’m not even sure whether the concept of popcorn had made it to German movie theaters and fairs before the 1970s. Germans simply didn’t eat it. It became popular only with and for my generation. And that was for a reason.
Maybe you know some Germans of the generation that grew up during World War II. Ask them whether they like eating corn. If they say “no”, it is pretty symptomatic. Corn used to be exclusively cattle and pig food in Germany. Germans grew up on rye and wheat, on barley and oats.
World War II had pretty much turned Germany into a ground zero. People had no homes, and the crops were lost. Potato beetle plagues and harsh weather (both scorching summers and icy winters) made the first years after the war a matter of survival. If it hadn’t been for international charities and the Hoover Plan, millions would have starved to death.
This was about the time that corn was introduced into the German food plan. Legend has it that the Germans (who exactly?) were asked (by whom?!) what they needed most (everything!), and that a translator botched the German word “Korn”, i.e. grain, and translated it as “corn”. So, corn was imported big time, and all of a sudden, Germans were dealing with a diet so much sweeter than anything they were used to: corn flour, corn meal, cornbread. There was no butter on the cobs or jam to go with a corn cake. Maybe some felt it was adding insult to injury being given “pig food”. Be it as it may – even if you were fed your favorite dish 365 days a year for seemingly endless years (my guess is that the corn diet vanished after the first better crops), you would have developed kind of a disgust even with that favorite dish. You would not ever want to taste it again. How so much more with a food that goes against your grain?! If somebody served it to you even in the best of times, you’d think of the worst place you’d been in your life: when you were utterly helpless and vulnerable. This is why some of your German friends born before 1945 might not be into corn on the cob, corn muffins, corn bread, corn anything.
I hadn’t been aware of this as a child. Therefore, when on my first US vacation as a teenager I tasted my first corn on the cob, buttered up and seasoned with salt and pepper, I returned home with raving reviews and the wish to try this in my family.
That was when I first heard about my father’s corn aversion. When my brother returned from his first US vacation two years later, he was totally in love with corn on the cob as well. We got our fill of canned corn after the Ukrainian nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl in 1986. My mother didn’t buy any fresh produce that year or the next for fear of feeding her family highly contaminated dishes. I still love the corn and kidney bean salad with an onion vinaigrette, which was one of our main sides during those two years. It was mingled in cleverly and by far not the only canned vegetable we received.
Today, I create anything vegetable with corn. I’m not keen on the sweet flavor in corn cakes and corn bread at all, though.
Maybe that is my German food heritage – what is ingrained in my genes. My husband and I even planted corn in a raised bed this spring, and now we are waiting anxiously whether the high stalks of painted corn will, finally, turn out some cobs.
I am grateful that there was never a day in my life when something that I might have loved was turned into something I had to eat because I would have starved otherwise. I’m grateful that I never had to eat something I hated for years in a row. I’m grateful that I was never, at any time in my life, at a point when I’d been starving, period. But whenever I eat corn on the cob, I think of these family members and friends of mine who survived a catastrophe because of this incredibly versatile plant.