Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Potatoes, Corn, Wheat, and Rice
You probably know as much about rice as you do about potatoes, corn, or wheat. Your consumption of french fries, baked potatoes, potato chips, and mashed potatoes probably puts the common potato high on the list of foods you regularly consume. But how much do you know about various varieties of potatoes that are favored in the preparation of french fries or potato chips? Most people have heard of Russet potatoes and Maine potatoes, but varietal names for potatoes seem to be largely unimportant, although they are known to the geneticists who develop them and the farmers who grow them.
The same situation goes for corn, also known as maize. Humans consume sweet corn fresh on the cob and whole kernel and crushed corn from cans but, in the main, we think of corn in a general way. A limited number of varieties with names that we know, such as Luther, white corn and, Indian corn are sought out for their individuality but most laymen know nothing beyond a few varieties. There are distinctions, however, that are important in their milling characteristics and subsequent large-scale use for specific purposes.
Luther variety of sweet corn
Sweet corn on the cob is Zea mays var. saccharata or Z. mays var. rugosa. Popcorn is Zea mays var. everta and the variety used in corn flour is Zea mays var. amylacea. Among the field corn varieties grown for animal feed, two main types (of many experimental varieties) are well known to corn farmers. Zea mays var. indurata is know as a flint type that has a hard kernel when dried; and Zea mays var. indentata is known as dent, with a softer kernel.
Other than among corn farmers, we know even less about the numerous genetic strains and experimental varieties that are grown for animal feed or for export to other countries. Volume production of “field corn” may be high, but varietal distinctions go largely unnoticed in the general public.
Wheat that goes into bread and pastries is usually discussed in very general terms, with only occasional reference to the variety of wheat that is the essence of baking qualities and taste differences. Two broad types of wheat are grown worldwide, Triticum aestivum and Triticum durum. Spring wheat and winter wheat are grown in different seasons but they are also different varieties of the same botanical plant. We as consumers may favor a certain taste but we seldom seek out a specific variety of wheat as an essential ingredient in our baking recipes.
When it comes to rice, we are more aware and discriminating than we realize. Although most Americans probably don’t eat rice as a regular staple in their diets and the consumption of rice falls below either potatoes, corn or wheat in the form of baked products, most of us have a passing familiarity with some of the varieties and trade names of rice. Long-grain rice, Calrose, brown rice, Jasmine rice, and others are all distinctive enough in their varietal characteristics to rate a passing nod in regards to familiarity. Add to that the other descriptors that distinguish one rice variety from another. Indian rice, Thai rice, Japanese rice and Carolina rice are a few of the geographic labels that single out the distinctiveness that also has varietal implications. Marketing has also made a big impact in enlightening all of us about how many varieties of rice are available. One small market in our area has a display shelf featuring Basmati Rice, Jasmine Rice, Sushi Rice, Mexican Fiesta Rice, Long-Grained Rice and Wild Rice. They come in boxes, clear plastic bags and small packets. Wholesale markets often sell rice in jute and woven bags weighing 25-50 pounds.
Like many other fruits, vegetable, and grains that are grown in different climates and soils around the world, some varieties of rice favor certain growing conditions over other conditions. Some thrive in flooded land but many varieties grow well in uplands. The appearance and taste of the grain are a few of the differences that are not so obvious. That is also why botanists felt a need to make distinctions in their scientific nomenclature. Asian rice was originally described by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and given the name Oryza sativa Linnaeus. Other common varieties are Oryza sativa spp. Indica (Indian rice); O. sativa spp. japonica (Japanese rice); O. sativa spp. javanica (Javan) and O. sativa spp. glaberrima Steudel (African).