A country built with corn

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

"Sex is good," Garrison Keillor has observed, "but not as good as fresh sweet corn." Betty Fussell, author of "The Story of Corn," probably wouldn't disagree. After researching the subject for five years, she concluded, "I can't think of anything sexier than corn."

Sexy or not, nothing is more basic to American cuisine and culture than corn. As Elisabeth Rozin observes, "Corn is the ultimate, the essential American food, the one that began here, the one that stayed here, the one that nourished all who came here." She adds, "It remains today the single food most closely identified with the American character and the American myth."

Indeed, without it there might not have been an America as we know it. As Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont note, "Plymouth and Jamestown alike would have disappeared before they had taken root if their settlers had been unable to bring themselves to eat corn."

Today the country they settled produces more than 10 billion bushels of corn each year, and their ancestors consume, in one form or another, over 3 pounds of corn per person per day. In an average year each of us will eat something like 60 quarts of it popped.

And yet corn in its natural state makes up less than 1 percent of the American corn market. Fifty-seven percent of the crop is fed to animals, which is to say it's converted into cows, hogs and chickens. If you had eggs for breakfast this morning (assuming you didn't have a bowl of that most American of breakfast foods, cornflakes), the chicken who laid them was probably fed corn.

Moreover, corn derivatives are major ingredients in a host of food products including soft drinks, ice cream and even hot dogs. And don't forget the role corn plays in making America's favorite whiskey, the bourbon of Kentucky (where, they say, the corn is full of kernels and the colonels full of corn.)

Beyond the dinner table, corn figures in a wide variety of products ranging from shoe polish to embalming fluid. At last count there were at least 600 products made from corn.

Like Native Americans who made moccasins out of corn husks and used the cobs for fuel, we do more with corn than eat the kernels, and we'd be hard pressed to live without it.

Those natives, of course, had been growing corn long before Columbus arrived in 1492 and "discovered" it. As far back as prehistoric times they were already making popcorn, the oldest known corn in the world. In fact, were it not for them the crop we know today would not exist, for corn is a plant that is not found naturally in the wild. It cannot reproduce itself. It must be cultivated and developed by humans.

That cultivation began at least 7,000 years ago in central Mexico when natives serendipitously crossed two grasses, teosinte and gamagrass. The result, with small kernels spaced far apart, didn't look much like modern corn, but through systematic cultivation Native Americans promoted the development of ears or cobs like those we see today.

Before long corn took on symbolic significance for these peoples. For example, among the Mayans the growing cycle of maize was a metaphor for life, the root of their language, and the basis of their calendar. In every indigenous culture corn was planted amidst ceremony and prayer and thought to be a gift of the gods.

One taste of a freshly picked golden ear of summer corn dripping with butter, and it's hard to argue with that.

Listen to "A Harte Appetite" at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail tharte@semissourian.com.

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