A “three sisters” stew of Anasazi beans, hominy and squash simmers on the stove inside the cozy Clifton home that Kevin Betts shares with his wife, Melode. Before lunch, he offers visitors a slice of polenta made with blue corn hominy, dried cherry tomatoes and garlic – it’s delicious! A plate of dried blue corn on the cob makes a fitting centerpiece for the table.
Wearing his standard overalls and baseball cap, Betts is a youngish 62-year-old, with a salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He’s been “playing with blue corn,” as he puts it, for 30 years. As a child, he watched his Creek Indian grandmother in southern Arizona cook hominy on a woodstove. She’d add wood ash to the whole corn – a tradition passed down from her mother.
“Wood ash, since it’s been cooked, concentrates the calcium and potassium,” says Betts. “That’s what is fantastic about it. The wood ash increases the amount of calcium absorbed, making it a real health food.” That explains why corn makes up to 90 percent of the diet of some people in Mexico, says Betts. Corn was domesticated thousands of years ago in Mexico, where it continues to be a staple and has many ritual uses.
These days, food-grade mineral lime is typically added to corn to achieve the effect of swelling the kernel to shed the outer hull, releasing the amino acids in the grain. While food-grade lime – available at hardware stores – will suffice, Betts prefers making hominy the way his grandmother did by adding wood ash from the woodstove. He likes the savory smoky flavor the ash imparts.
“Native people used blue corn for survival food; especially the Hopi,” says Betts. “Every part of the corn symbolized life. At every stage there were ceremonies. It was sacred; it attracted me to growing blue corn. Modern man has taken sacred corn and turned it into an industrial chemical product. We drive our cars with it. It’s in everything from plastics to paint.”
Betts grows his organic blue corn, beans, squash and other vegetables on an acre of land in the middle of Clifton – a tiny town nestled between Grand Junction and Palisade. In this residential neighborhood, houses surround his field. Chickens range freely around the property.
In January, Betts pulls off a forgotten corncob from the dried cornstalks still standing and dusted with snow. A lone tobacco plant is rooted nearby. A little farther away, a resident owl blends into this black and white wintery day from his perch high in an elm tree. “A family of four used to live there,” says Betts. He scatters grains for the field mice that become food for the owl.
Betts says he’s drawn to blue corn both for its nutritional qualities and ability to store for long periods. “I wanted to grow foods that I could store without processing much,” says Betts. “I don’t even need a grinder because I can make hominy – though it helps to have a grinder,” he quickly adds. He mashes his hominy to make tamales and tortillas. The grinder comes in handy for making blue cornmeal for cornbread, polenta, pancakes and sweet muffins.
A Colorado State University study indicates that blue corn’s protein content is consistently 30 percent higher than that of yellow or white corn. Another study, at New Mexico State University, claims blue corn has higher levels of zinc, iron, phosphorus, potassium and the amino acid lysine.
When Betts began growing blue corn 25 years ago, he purchased seed from Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit that promotes heirloom seed conservation, sharing and education. Native Seeds carries several types of Hopi corn, and other open-pollinated, non-GMO of heirloom and landrace varieties.
Native Seeds/SEARCH keeps alive the old corn varieties. Gary Nabban, Mahina Drees, and the late Barney Burns co-founded Native Seeds after working on a project in 1983 to assist the Tohono O’odham Nation in establishing sustainable gardens. According to their web site (http://www.nativeseeds.org/), tribal elders told them, “What we are really looking for are the seeds for the foods our grandparents used to grow.”
After more than two decades, the corn Betts acquired from Native Seeds continues to germinate. He plants from seed that he’s saved – until after about three years when cross-pollination begins to occur, causing pearl- and red-colored kernels to appear. When that happens, Betts returns to his original seed stock to preserve the corn’s blue pigment.
Blue corn is coarser, grainier and contains more minerals and antioxidants, says Betts. “The Indians knew this,” he says. “They survived on this. They had other colors – Indians selected out the characteristics of corn to preserve its solid blue color.”
Erich Grotewold, a professor at Ohio State University and director of the Center for Applied Plant Sciences, agrees that blue corn has more antioxidants, and that given a choice between blue and yellow corn tortillas, he chooses blue corn for its possible added health benefits.
John Wood, of Ouray, uses blue corn when making bourbon for his KJ Wood Distillers that he plans to open in May, at 929 Main Street.
Bourbon mash must be made with 51 percent corn, says Wood. Although it’s more expensive than the genetically modified yellow corn from which most bourbon is made, Wood says he prefers blue corn for its “unique, unmatched flavor” in the final product. Plus, blue corn is native and heritage seed quality, he adds.
After Wood announced he was setting up shop in Ouray, the Colorado Department of Agriculture contacted him about buying his blue corn from the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in southwestern Colorado. He had been getting his blue corn from an Albuquerque distributor but plans to switch to the Utes’ corn.
Betts grows enough blue corn each year, when dried and shelled, to fill a five-gallon bucket – enough for his family and to share with friends. Although he owns a tractor with corn planters, Betts prefers planting by hand, one seed at a time. “I feel more of an attachment, the seed feels more a part of me, a part of my own soul,” Betts says. “It’s more like a meditation.”