home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


7 january 2018

Nothing's more American than corn … well, maybe baseball and apple pie. And Mom. But we are a corn-fed nation, albeit somewhat indirectly: most American corn is fed to livestock. A huge additional amount goes to industrial purposes, and into our cars. Cars are pretty American, too. Suffice to say that we owe a lot to corn.

But corn has always occupied an inferior social position in the United States. This tension becomes a running theme in Michael Owen Jones' global history of the grain. The prestige grain of Britain, and indeed all of Western Europe, in early colonial times, was wheat. Corn, a New World plant, was of course unknown in Europe before 1492. But other grains served Europeans in the role of cultural inferiors to wheat, and still do: barley, oats, and rye among them.

When Anglos settled in North America, "Indian" corn became the plebeian counterpart to prestigious, exotic wheat. Corn, Jones shows, was associated with Native Americans, with pioneers living in marginal circumstances, and eventually with blacks, Southern poor whites, and Latinos. During the Civil War, Union soldiers ate wheaten biscuit, which was awful; Confederates ate cornpone, which was worse. Corn became associated with the literally cheesy Midwest, with flyover country, with hokey situations and glurgy sentiments. Meanwhile, wheat ears decorated the Lincoln penny; "amber waves of grain" instead of green-gold cornfields were featured in patriotic song. Even the 21st-century backlash against wheat as a glutinous villain hasn't elevated gluten-free corn to a position of respect. GMO corn and high-fructose corn syrup are public enemies #s 2 and 3 in the eyes of progressive foodies.

Meanwhile, around the world, corn dominates many foodways. By contrast to the US, most corn grown in Africa feeds humans directly. Corn plays a greater role in Asian cuisines, even in China and Japan, than one would expect. The corn salad you see in Indian-restaurant buffets is not a sop to American tastes, but apparently a quite authentic Indian street food (Jones provides a recipe). But corn has rarely become the focus of high culinary traditions. It is above all functional. Corn offers enormous yields and supreme convenience: you can't get roasted wheat ears from food trucks, and popwheat is not a thing. Well, I suppose puffed wheat is a thing, but you wouldn't take a big buttered bag of it into a movie.

Jones' Corn doesn't have a strong shape: it meanders over the same material multiple times. But it is a modest and charming look at the vast range of worldwide culinary treatments of a humble grain. The recipes in Corn are snack or comfort foods. The most elaborate is Chilean pastel de choclo, a cross between cottage pie and tamale pie, only using chicken thighs layered with ground beef, and topped with creamed corn instead of batter.

Most folks know that only a small percentage of maize is sweetcorn; little of the world's corn is eaten directly off the cob. Most culinary corn gets processed into meal and flour ‐ or distilled into bourbon. You can bake with cornmeal and cornflour, of course, but lacking any yummy gluten, cornbread starts off crumbly and quickly dries out to a pumice-like consistency. Hence the great staple corn preparations: masa, grits, hasty pudding, polenta, nshima, and ugali, all of which get close attention in Jones' book. The idea, developed and elaborated in many food traditions, is to pound and grind corn, and then cook it as a paste or porridge. If lucky, you get other things to supplement this rather bland starch. If not, you might get pellagra unless the corn is first nixtamalized: treated with alkalines to make its niacin available. One thing I learned from Jones' book is that nacho chips are nixtamalized, but Fritos are not. Not that that matters in the first world where you can't eat a bowl of cereal in the morning without getting most of your day's niacin, but it's a food fact worth remembering in case of apocalypse.

Corn doesn't feature much in high art or poetry. The word "corn" sometimes does, as in Keats, whose Ruth stands "in tears amid the alien corn," but that corn is wheat, or perhaps spelt or emmer. Shakespeare's Titania laments that "the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard," but that too is wheat, not yet tasseled. Among Americans writing about the real thing, Emily Dickinson wrote of "a June when corn is cut" (Indian summer), and her snake liked "a floor too cool for corn," but though she won a prize for her rye-and-Indian bread, she wasn't really a poet of the cornfields. Sidney Lanier waxed more lyrical about "Visions of golden treasuries of corn—/ Ripe largesse lingering for some bolder heart"; and Carl Sandburg, inevitably, noted how "The ears ripen in late summer / And come on with a conquering laughter." But neither of those poems is very memorable, and I didn't even know about them till a couple of googles ago.

But most of the poetry that Jones cites is folksong, and most of the art that he prints here is folk production like postage-stamp and trading-card illustrations (all the cooler for not being high art, to my mind, but exemplifying the lack of corn in the canon). Grant Wood took a surreal interest in corn ricks, as one might have expected, but few artists have followed his lead. Jones does not mention Wood, but I sense the influence of Wood on one artist that Jones discusses, Malcolm Cochran, whose Field of Corn speaks in a stylized, enigmatic way to the symbolic, if somewhat kitschy, spell that corn casts on American culture.

Jones, Michael Owen. Corn: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.