“As long as they’re orange, you can get them,” James Chantanasombut, Dining Manager at Creative Dining Services, said into the phone.
The call had interrupted our meeting and I waited while he politely hurried to finish the conversation.
“You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find black and orange tortilla chips,” he said, hanging up with exasperation. It was the Thursday before homecoming weekend and Creative Dining had close to 60 events to cater in the coming two days.
I briefly pondered the strangeness of school spirit being reflected in the color of our food. Black and orange frosting on a celebratory cake? Okay. But adding dye to snack foods—that seems to take edible school spirit too far. Is it a snack, or decoration? Why can’t we just put plain old beige tortilla chips in an orange bowl and the salsa in a black one and call it a day?
James’ phone conversation popped back into my head at the farmers’ market on the following Saturday. I had stopped by to see what one of my favorite farmers was selling that week. John, an organic farmer out of Van Buren County, usually brings a hodge-podge of interesting produce in small quantities. He grows only what he’s sure he’ll be able to sell, plus extra for himself.
I noticed bunches of colorful corn on his table as I chatted with him about the watermelons I had bought last week.
“Now that’s dry corn. I’ve been experimenting with that stuff. I’m grinding it for cornmeal and corn flour,” he said as I picked up an ear.
The corn kernels, ranging from deep purple to indigo to pearly white, were hard and tightly packed on the cob. He had a few bundles arranged on the table, one displaying an ear with black and orange kernels.
“That one’s flint corn,” John said, pointing to the corn I was eyeing. He explained that ‘flint corn’ gets its name from the hard (as flint) outer layer that protects the endosperm of each kernel.
The most common variety of dry corn is ‘dent corn’, so called because of the dimples on each kernel. Dent corn is used as animal feed and to make corn syrup, fructose, biodegradable fuel and plastics. Most of the corn grown in the US today is Yellow Dent Corn or a variety derived from it.
The ear I was inspecting was a ‘Painted Mountain’ flint corn. According to Fedco, from whom John orders his seeds, it is the hardiest, fastest maturing grain corn in the world. It was developed in Montana from a diverse gene pool of about 80 strains of native corn. Its soft, starchy kernels make it ideal for milling into corn flour or cornmeal – the base ingredient for cornbread, taco shells, and tortilla chips.
John insisted that I take the corn and experiment with it. When I pulled out my wallet he protested, “No no! That’s not a good way to do business.”
Hmm… orange and black corn meal = orange and black tortilla chips? Maybe we could have edible school spirit without the food coloring.