July 24, 2012

Sweet Corn Chowder

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.                                                                                             – Anne Bronte

I recently wrote an article about my complicated relationship with corn for Edible Toronto Magazine (something which I've blogged about before). I'll warn you this is a longer-than-usual post - although it's actually a pared-down version of the full Edible Toronto article - but bear with me. If you love corn, you should read this. And if you don't have time, do watch this short video I made to accompany the article. My recipe for summery sweet corn chowder is below.  

I’ve never been a picky eater. In fact, aside from a short-lived vegetarian stint as a teenager, I have always considered myself a proud omnivore. I will eat anything and everything, and with gusto! I am what we call in French a gourmande. I simply love to eat. And I used to sink my teeth into an ear of corn without hesitation, anticipating only the pure pleasure that a juicy, golden cob can provide on a sunny summer day. But in the late 1990s I read something that completely changed my eating habits: the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sold in Canada contained genetically engineered corn whereas the same cereal in Europe did not. I was annoyed to learn that we Canadians had so passively allowed these new mystery ingredients into our foods so I dove headfirst into a research and film project about genetically engineered (GE) foods, or GMOs, as they are more commonly known. 

I was so dismayed with what I found out about GMOs that I decided to do everything in my power to avoid eating them. But this is easier said than done: the three main GE foods – canola, soy and corn – are in a whopping 80 percent of the processed foods found in our grocery stores (click here for a long list of hidden GMO ingredients). And since none of these are labeled, a convoluted guessing game begins. Since most farm animals are fed GE soy and corn, suddenly meat and dairy were out for me as well, unless they were certified organic. (Organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs.) So what happened is I went from being an omnivore to being a very, very picky eater!

It isn't easy to explain it to people. It just doesn’t come out very smoothly, no matter which way you cut it. At least vegetarians, diabetics, heck, even vegans get a little understanding and respect. But try explaining that you’ll take a pass on those nachos because they are likely made with genetically engineered corn, cooked in genetically engineered canola oil, and smothered in cheese from cows that were fed genetically engineered soy and corn. If you ever want to create an instant awkward silence followed by a raging debate at a dinner party, I recommend this technique. You end up sounding like the annoying and paranoid food snob who asks way too many questions. So over the years I've learned to be discreet about my non-GMO inclinations when eating in public. But then again, isn’t that what landed us here in the first place? We Canadians are so polite and docile about everything, we are terrified we might disturb or offend someone. Maybe if we put up a good food fight, we would actually stand a chance at proper labelling and knowing what we're eating. Our American neighbours are now well ahead of us on that front, with some states beginning to pass GMO labelling laws.

I used to be somewhat comforted by the knowledge that most of the GE corn on the market was field corn intended for animal feed or processed foods. There were virtually no genetically engineered sweet corn varieties being grown in Canada. I could still indulge in my beloved slathered-in-butter corn on the cob as much as I wanted. But all of this changed last summer when a variety of not-so-sweet GE sweet corn called Attribute, from the company Syngenta, started being grown and sold in Canada and the US. With a heavy heart, I scratched yet another one of my favourite foods from my list.

I wanted to find out if I should be on the lookout for any other new GE sweet corn varieties this summer, so I consulted Health Canada’s list of approved “plants with novel traits,” as they mysteriously prefer to call them. I could see that various varieties of GE corn had been approved over the years, but that they were all field corn varieties. So I contacted Health Canada to inquire about sweet corn specifically. They informed me that they do not provide “information on which varieties of sweet corn are currently being grown in Canada.” So I contacted Lucy Sharratt at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). She confirmed that it is next to impossible to obtain this kind of information from our government. “You practically have to be a detective to find out what GE crops are being grown and sold in Canada”, she explained. Lucy informed me that, in addition to Attribute, there are three varieties of Monsanto sweet corn on the market this year, modestly dubbed Temptation II, Obsession II and Passion II. When I hear these names, I can’t help but simultaneously think of bad perfumes. . . and the witch and her shiny, poisonous apple in Snow White, but I digress.

By now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Why not just eat the darn corn and stop worrying so much. Usually, when people ask me why I go through all the trouble, I recommend that they watch The World According to Monsanto, a film by award-winning journalist Marie-Monique Robin. And also read Altered Genes, Twisted Truths by Steve Druker (named by Jane Goodall "one of the most important books of the last 50 years"). Both answer a lot of questions and are true eye-openers as to the corrupted ways GMOs re being regulated in our food supply. I suppose that fundamentally, it’s the idea of genetic engineering that disturbs me most since it involves artificially forcing genetic material from one organism into the DNA of an entirely different species, something that doesn’t happen in nature, and with consequences that are difficult to predict. But in actual fact, I'm not  opposed to genetic engineering, conducted in a laboratory setting, as a means of scientific research, especially in the medical field. But when genetically engineered organisms are put into our foods without being labelled or adequately tested independently (in other words, not tested by the same companies that have created them), that's where I believe there's cause for concern. There are increasing number of peer-reviewed animal-feeding studies showing evidence of organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, and reproductive failure. And earlier this year, scientists at the University of Caen in France showed that the Bt protein found in genetically engineered corn can be toxic to human cells, an alarming discovery given that last year doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt toxin from GE corn in the blood of 93 percent of the pregnant women they studied.

When people hear of my aversion to GE corn, I am often asked if I would rather have pesticides on my food. The answer, of course, is no. But the reality is that if GE corn isn’t sprayed with pesticides (which it usually is), that’s because it has been engineered to create its own pesticide. The pesticide is now inside the plant rather than outside of it. It can't be washed off because it resides in every cell of the plant. In fact, the cultivation of genetically engineered crops has led not to a decrease (as we are often told), but to an increase of 404 million pounds of pesticide use in the US since they were introduced. This increase is due in part to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds (or “superweeds”) caused by herbicide- resistant GMOs, such as Round-Up-resistant crops. And since these herbicide-resistant superweeds are becoming harder and harder to control using conventional herbicides like Round-Up, companies are now turning to stronger and more toxic chemicals, as Andrew Kimbrell explains in my video above. 

Given all of this, you’d think that our government would conduct thorough scientific studies before approving new genetically engineered foods but, instead, it relies on industry studies done by the very companies seeking approval (and profits) for these new foods. In 2001, the federal government was blasted by an Expert Panel of the Royal Society of Canada for its flawed and inadequate regulatory system when it comes to GMOs. The panel, a senior body of preeminent scientists and scholars, made 58 detailed recommendations for improving the regulatory system and approvals process to ensure it does what it is meant to do, which is to protect Canadians. Alarmingly, only 2 of the 58 recommendations were implemented. Given that our government is not following the expert recommendations of one of its top scientific bodies, is it any wonder that people are asking that at the very least, we be allowed to know which foods contain GMOs through simple labelling?

My farming colleagues planting Bodacious corn!
When I wrote my Edible Toronto article, I had just finished planting several rows of organic sweet corn at the farm where I am apprenticing. The variety we planted is called Bodacious, which according to the dictionary means: “remarkable, noteworthy, bold, audacious, sexy, and voluptuous.”  Yes, these are all attributes that I will happily sink my teeth into in just a few weeks since there are now small cobs on our corn plants. My boyfriend and I are also growing three other organic, open-pollinated varieties in our garden. One of these produces rosy pink kernels, which I'm dying to taste! The act of growing our own sweet corn represents a small kernel of hope for a world where we can one day have the basic human right of knowing what we are eating and, more importantly, knowing that our summer pleasures are not harming other living things. I’ll possibly find a worm or two in my corn. But I will happily take the worm over the spliced DNA.

My sweetheart holding some very special (field) corn seeds
If anyone actually read this looong post all the way through to the end, you most definitely deserve a medal, or at the very least, a delicious bowl of GMO-free corn chowder. And here's how to make it... but first! Oh I know, I'm so annoying, but first, please take one second to sign this important online letter against GE sweet corn.

This is a light, summery chowder best made with fresh sweet corn and new potatoes. The addition of cream and cornmeal gives it a velvety texture that is creamy but not too thick. The chipotle is optional as it can be quite spicy and overpowering for some. For a GMO-free chowder, you’ll want to watch out for the following ingredients to be either *organically grown or *non-GMO-certified: sweet corn, butter, bacon, chicken stock, cornmeal and cream. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

1 small bunch of fresh thyme (about 15 sprigs)

4 ears of sweet corn*

4 slices bacon*, chopped, (or 2 tbsp butter*)

1 medium onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 tbsp finely chopped chives or green onion
4 cups chicken* or vegetable broth
1/4 cup cornmeal*
2 to 3 cups cubed potatoes
Optional: 1 minced chipotle chile (from a can or dried and rehydrated)
2 cups half and half (10%) cream*
1 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Using a sharp knife, remove the corn kernels from the ears of corn; set the kernels aside. In a medium stockpot over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Stir in the celery, half of the thyme leaves, chives, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.

Stir in the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Transfer 1/2 cup of the liquid to a medium bowl. Add the cornmeal to the bowl, whisking until smooth. Stir the cornmeal mixture back into the chowder. Stir in the potatoes and chipotle (start with one-half of the chopped chipotle and add more if desired, to taste). Cook 10 minutes and then stir in the corn kernels. Cook until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the cream and paprika and cook until just heated through, about 2 minutes. (After the cream is added, do not allow the chowder to boil.) Garnish with sprigs of thyme or chives and serve with warm crusty bread.


  1. Nice detective work, Aube! Thanks for posting - hope to be enjoying some corn in the coming months - but perhaps a little more cautiously now. Great piece and the recipe looks intriguing - love the addition of a little cornmeal.

    1. Thanks Unka P :-) I hope you get to enjoy some corn very soon, valley corn should be just about ready... yeah I found, the cornmeal really gives it a little more substance and creaminess, now there's no going back :-) Hope to see you and Pam later this summer xoxo

  2. Très bon article :) Ça démontre à quel point il faut reprendre le contrôle de notre alimentation en connaissant les producteurs et/ou en produisant soi-même.

    1. Merci Marie-C, je suis d'accords, en plus ça goute meilleure lorsqu'on produit soi-même :-)

  3. This post is wonderful, I am exactly the same as you in my food choices and I think its just plain immoral that the government allows GMO foods to be grown. Its just so destructive to everything on the planet, including us and our children.

    I can't wait to see your homegrown corn! I've been wanting to do that as well! Loving your blog. Your recipes are all right up my alley and your photos are beautiful.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this and I hope it reaches and informs others!

  4. Thank you so much for an amazing piece! Education is the path to change and our food production systems require some major change! I have no doubt we are causing humanity great harm with many of our production practices and if we don't look to more sustainable methods.... I am afraid to even contemplate. I work in the veterinary world, migrated from large animal to furry pets. I see the general health of our pets being directly affected by processed foods and chemicals being used in our communities. These furry ones are like the canaries in coal mines, sentinels for our short sightedness. We need to make change and people like yourself willing to take the time and spread the word are the answer. Thank you again, I will be sure to share this with many.

  5. How can you claim this :
    "and, more importantly, knowing that our summer pleasures are not harming other living things" ,when in fact you could not care less about millions of living things, all in the name of culinary pleasure, as you say in your post : "In fact, aside from a short-lived vegetarian stint as a teenager, I have always considered myself a proud omnivore. I will eat anything and everything, and with gusto!"

    There is nothing to be proud of about basing your pleasures on the horrible suffering of others. Putting others through a never ending living hell, for pleasure !
    Have a look and get some perspective

    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for visiting my blog and I certainly appreciate where you are coming from. I do believe it is important to diminish our meat intake and to eat meat from local farms that treat their animals well. I eat primarily a plant-based diet and the meat I eat is organically-grown and pasture-raised, some of which we have raised ourselves. The animals I eat have lived happy lives in the sunshine and outdoors. When it comes time to butcher them, they are killed in a humane way, quickly and without suffering. I believe the true suffering we are inflicting on living creatures comes from our use or chemicals in agriculture & other industries, along with climate change, which combined are killing off entire ecosystems and the living creatures in them at an alarming rate. To me, this large-scale suffering and our unsustainable lifestyles is the real concern. However, I can reassure you that having lived on several family farms and raised my own meat, farming can be done ethically, environmentally, and in a way that respects the natural world we are a part of. Thanks for expressing your concerns and very best wishes to you.

    2. Considering that everything contains atoms and most things a myriad of living organisms, whether it be our soil, plants or the animals which we share our world with, how is Anonymous surviving? Plants are living things, do we not eat them either, or walk on the ground for fear of crushing a living thing. Perspective, folks.....................

  6. Hi Aubergine,

    First things first - where's my medal? I read the entire thing. Lol. Okay, just kidding about the medal, but serious about reading the entire post. I came across your blog/education/you via YouTube. I reside in the Caribbean and I am quite aware of GMOs and the absolute fact that we are also breathing, eating and Lord alone knows what else GMOs. In the Caribbean, we import A LOT! Thing is, we SPECIFICALLY and MOSTLY import from North America, which Geographically is a lot closer to us than Europe, so it is clear that we ingest this nonsense. Quite a few families are taking on the concept of growing our own home gardens, except that, due to the lack of education, most home gardens are grown conventionally with the pesticides and all. I have been educating, reading, breathing, eating, sleeping, researching, checking documentaries etc. on Nutrition! I have looked at countless documentaries about GMOs and the health hazards it is creating, not only in humans, but to our environment!

    Not only am I on a quest to grow organically, I'm also on the quest to "infect" neighbours, loved ones, friends, extended family and ANYONE God sends in my path about the importance of nutrition. My business is along the lines of cakes and I am in the process of switching all regular ingredients to the organically produced versions, the only problem is that we have a few reliable organic grocers, who, again, import a lot of the organic produce, since it isn't created on a large scale locally, so, it's usually expensive, but you know, I prefer spending the money on nutritious meals than medical bills! I get that part about when speaking to people about MSG, GMO and asking a tonne load of questions about where/how the food reached our table and they're looking at you as if you're weird, and telling friends about it and obtaining the same reaction, a lot of people are still in the dark, but I am absolutely grateful for the opportunity to research and learn about nutrition on such a large scale. I was guided to your blog/vlog via my search for nutrition via several sources, but mainly the Lexicon of Sustainability series on PBS via YouTube and then, the beloved Kitchen Vignettes on PBSs YouTube channel. You made me happy, to see food grown to such large extents and then turned into Gorgeous Healthy Family-Loving Meals. One can obviously not go wrong here! Though I live in the Caribbean and there are certain crops that may not grow as they should, due to the hot climate we have, I am leaning strongly on crops that can resist the hot weather, embracing each moment of warmth they receive. Lol. Awww, kale, my boyfriend though, is currently working on ways of working with conditions to find possible and positive ways to grow Kale, in a healthy manner, so I'm definitely cheering him on. He is an inspiration, one aiming to add holistically to our environment by creating healthier farm-to-table lifestyles also.

    Your kitchen vignettes are WONDERFUL and the background music, hmmm, your skills are a Beauty to behold and I just wish you the Best, that you'll always create beauties that we can continue to be blown away with and put into practise. Hooray for you. My favourite though - because I'm a pasta-head - is the Nettle Fettucine Alfredo, I am SOOOOO looking forward to making this. My garden is in the trial stage, I start transplanting and obtaining more heirloom seeds from next week God's will and look forward to a beautiful harvest with His guided hands, in the meantime, I look out for more of your kitchen vignettes!

    Thank you. God Bless You Aubergine for being an advocate of His Excellent Works!

  7. This is an amazing recipe. I really amaze with this blog and the dish is looks very delicious!