Inside were two ears of corn. And a letter.
The handwritten note explained that the corn was an heirloom variety called New England Eight Row Flint (or Otto File, by its Italian name), and that it was a taste that was nearly lost to history.
Native Americans cultivated this variety hundreds of years ago. The corn caught on with settlers in New England because it was hearty and nutritious.
Then, in the 19th century, the grain was exported to Italy, where it was prized as a stunningly flavorful polenta corn.
Barber was curious. So he got in touch with the man who had sent the FedEx package, a grain enthusiast named Glenn Roberts. He had tracked down Eight Row Flint corn seed from a maize seed collection and grown some.
"It was phenomenally flavored," Roberts told me. "The flavors were bounding out of the polenta." He was eager to revive the corn here in the U.S.
If you listen to my story, you'll hear how chef Barber made an arrangement to start growing the New England heirloom corn at the farm next to his restaurant. And for the past eight years, farmer Jack Algiere has overseen its cultivation.
During my visit, Algiere showed me one of the golden-hued cobs still growing on the stalk. "It will turn a golden orange when it's dry," Algiere said.
The vibrancy of this yellowish-orange pigment is indicative of high concentrations of beneficial phytonutrients called carotenoids, which make this corn appealing for its nutritional value. And it's also fairly high in protein.
So why did farmers stop growing this corn? For everything that New England Eight Row Flint corn has going for it in terms of flavor, its big downside is that it doesn't produce many cobs. It's a low-yield corn.
"That's why farmers moved to higher-yield [varieties]," explains Algiere. "They can get more corn per acre at lower quality." Farmers produce for bulk because they're paid by the bushel, not by the color or the flavor.
So varieties such as New England Eight Row Flint corn may produce great taste, but they're not really commercially viable unless you convince more people to pay for taste over volume.
That's what chef Barber is doing at Blue Hill. He serves a polenta made from the Eight Row Flint corn grown at Stone Barns.
And when I tasted it, I was surprised. The polenta tasted as if he had added butter. It was creamy and flavorful. Diners who have been turned onto it say the flavor is stunningly complex. "It's kinda crazy," he says.
The taste is coming directly from the corn.
Barber says this corn is just one example of what can happen when crops are bred to be flavorful and colorful, not just big.
The chef says he hopes this story becomes more than just a foodie fascination with heirlooms because he thinks there's more at stake here about the way our food is grown.
"What I've come to learn from this experience is that if you are pursuing great flavor," he says, "you are pursuing great nutrition. It's one and the same."
And what he'd like to see is for farmers and plant breeders to work together to combine the best of the old with modern breeding techniques that may help pack more nutrition into the foods we all eat.
So where can you get your hands on some of these heirloom varieties of dried corn? Well, in Italy a few boutique millers grind Otto File corn.
And there's a smattering of farms and seed suppliers in the U.S. selling other varieties of Flint corn, such as Seed Savers Exchange and High Mowing Seeds. Harry Here Farm in Exeter, R.I., grows a variety called Longfellow.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Fresh, sweet corn is a real treat this time of year. We like to slather it with butter, and get that perfect combination of crunchy and sweet. But imagine a corn with a totally different taste; not sweet at all but creamier, more flavorful, and full of protein. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a taste from the past, and the revival of a type of heirloom corn.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: One day about eight years ago, chef Dan Barber was in the kitchen of his restaurant called Blue Hill, which sits along the Hudson River Valley in New York, when he received a FedEx delivery. The package came from a man he didn't know. And inside he found...
DAN BARBER: Two corncobs.
AUBREY: And with them, a short letter.
BARBER: It was handwritten. He said, what you've got in your hand, it's true Eight Row Flint corn. He put "true." It's like, I have no idea what Eight Row Flint Corn was.
AUBREY: Barber says he had never heard of this Eight Row Flint corn. It's a high-protein corn that's really different to what we're accustomed to. It has distinctive flavors that have been bred out of modern corns. And all this made Barber curious.
BARBER: I am enamored with the flavor of Eight Row Flint corn because I'm enamored with the story.
AUBREY: What Dan Barber learned is that this corn has quite a past. Native Americans cultivated this variety hundreds of years ago. And it caught on with settlers in New England because it was hearty and nutritious. Then in the 19th century, it was exported to Italy, where it was prized as a great corn for making polenta.
GLENN ROBERTS: The moment I had was roasting it. And I said, my God, this is a food that we should have - we must have had it.
AUBREY: That's Glenn Roberts. He's a grain enthusiast and, it turns out, the man who FedExed the package. He wants to revive New England Eight Row Flint corn in the U.S., and that was his motivation for sending it to chef Barber. You see, Barber believes in knowing where your food comes from so much that he's set up his restaurant at a working farm, called Stone Barns. And after he and Roberts connected, the farm agreed to plant a small field of the Eight Row Flint that Barber could use in his restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF FARM VEHICLE IN MOTION)
AUBREY: When I visited the Stone Barns farm a few weeks back, farmer Jack Algiere gave me a tour.
JACK ALGIERE: I'm going to drive up to the top so you can see it, and then we'll go around the back. You can see the Hudson River right there.
AUBREY: As we approached, the rows of Eight Row Flint corn tower over us. The stalks are about 9 feet tall.
ALGIERE: And you can see, the cobs are very close here.
AUBREY: It's not quite ready for harvest yet. This corn will dry first. But Algiere peels back the husks of one cob, and shows me the color.
Physically - not white corn. It's more yellowish.
ALGIERE: That's right. And it will turn a golden orange when it's dry; a very firm, round kernel, large kernel.
AUBREY: All of this color is a sign that the corn is loaded with nutrients. The more vibrant the yellow-orange pigment, the higher the concentration of beneficial carotenoids; and this can influence taste, too.
ALGIERE: I think that it's got a great flavor.
AUBREY: Algiere says he's become a big fan of New England Eight Row Flint. So why is it that farmers stopped growing it? Well, it turns out that these big corn stalks don't produce too many ears of corn. It's what farmers would call low yield.
ALGIERE: And that's why the farmers moved to these more higher-yields. They can get more corn per acre, at a lower quality.
AUBREY: Algiere says this happens all the time in agriculture. Farmers are growing for bulk because they're paid by the bushel, not by the color or the flavor. So when you have a corn like the Eight Row Flint that produces these colorful, protein-rich cobs, it may taste great, but it's not very commercially viable - unless, that is, you convince more people to pay for taste over volume.
And that's what chef Dan Barber is doing at his restaurant, Blue Hill, which is located right on the farm. Inside his kitchen, he grinds up some of the corn, to make polenta for me to taste.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDER)
AUBREY: After he pours the ground corn into a big, stainless steel pot, he adds just two things.
BARBER: Water and a little bit of salt, and that's it.
AUBREY: Then puts it over a low flame.
BARBER: The main thing is to cook it very, very slowly.
AUBREY: Barber asks me to taste it first.
Wow. It's really creamy and rich.
AUBREY: There's no butter in there?
BARBER: Swear to God.
AUBREY: I'm really kind of surprised.
BARBER: Right. Isn't it crazy?
AUBREY: The taste is coming directly from the corn.
BARBER: But this is so much better. It's crazy.
AUBREY: Barber says this corn is just one example of what can happen when crops are bred to be flavorful and colorful and nutritious, not just big. And he says he hopes this story becomes more than just a foodie fascination with heirloom because he thinks there's more at stake here about the way our food is grown.
BARBER: What I've come to learn from this experience is that if you are pursuing great flavor, you're pursuing great nutrition. It's one and the same thing.
AUBREY: And he says what he'd like to see is for farmers and plant breeders to work together, to combine the best of the old with modern breeding techniques that may help pack more nutrition into the foods we all eat.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.