Category Archives: Corn

New Book Coming

While this blog is titled Midwest Maize, after my first book of food history, it will have to do for future food history and Midwest-oriented books, as I can’t quite imagine starting a new blog with every book.

Which is why I’m using it to introduce my next book: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. The book won’t be out for a couple of months, but it is already on Amazon, with a few reviews and the option of pre-ordering. So in case you thought I might have stopped studying after I wrote about corn, I didn’t.

Pigs were once known as cornfields on legs, because the easiest way to get pigs to market was to feed it to pigs and then let the pigs walk to market. So the connection between pigs and corn in the Midwest dates to the earliest settlement of the region. However, the history of humans and pigs dates back a lot longer than that–current estimate is 12,000 years of association. So there are a lot of tales of pigs through history, from the Celts inventing bacon to the Etruscans leading herds by playing trumpets. But the book isn’t all history. There are visits to farms and interviews with experts ranging from swine technicians to butchers and chefs to waste management specialists. There are some iconic regional recipes. And there are lot of the kinds of fun facts that make food history so enthralling.

On top of entertaining folks, I’m hoping this book will contribute to closing the gap between what people think about food and how it actually gets to us. There are a tremendous number of really good, decent, dedicated people working very hard to make sure you don’t starve. Come and meet a few of them in my books.

You can check it out here: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Literature, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Thoughts

Thai Corn Fritters

One of the things I love about studying food history, wherever I am, is recognizing how things have traveled. Almost everyone regularly eats something that was introduced, whether it’s a New Englander using nutmeg (Indonesia), a vendor in China preparing sweet potatoes (South America), a market in Ecuador featuring roast pig (Eurasia), or people in India growing and enjoying cashews (Brazil).

I’ve been to Thailand a couple of times, and I have delighted in the foods offered there, but I have also enjoyed witnessing the influence of worldwide trade, from Indian spices to such South American contributions as potatoes and peanuts. In this video, one of the online cooking shows I enjoy watching demonstrates a Thai dish that features one of the most important foods from the Americas: corn/maize.  Pailin uses not only corn but also corn starch, along with another key Latin American contribution to the world larder: chile.

Worth noting, whether you visit Thailand or just a good Thai restaurant, is that the greetings of “sawatdee ka” that opens the show is only a greeting made by a woman. Men would say “sawatdee krup.”

Anyway, I couldn’t resist sharing this recipe for crunchy Thai corn fritters.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, History, Language, Travel, Video

Jonathan Swift on Agriculture

In Gulliver’s Travels, author Jonathan Swift made use of the unusual characters Gulliver met to make comments (often critical) on society as a whole.

After listening in horror to Gulliver’s tales of European conflicts and politics, the prince of Brobdingnag, a land of giants, responds with a statement that reflects Swift’s outlook. Being agricultural in nature, it seems appropriate for this blog.

And he gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Literature

The Science of Popcorn

In my book, Midwest Maize, I share a lot of information about the history of corn—including much of what is included in this video. However, I don’t cover the science behind what makes one particular type of corn–popcorn– turn itself inside out. And I had not previously seen the 250-times magnification of popcorn that shows its structure. So just in case you’re interested in seeing how the miracle of that little white explosion takes place, here you go.

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Filed under Corn, Food, Video

Gray’s Grist Mill

When I first started researching corn, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a lot of ground to cover. I traveled in Mexico, recreated dishes from early colonial history, and looked into who was eating what, where, and when.

One tidbit I picked up early on was that, if you were from Rhode Island and you wanted to make Johnny cakes, you had to make them from Rhode Island Narragansett flint corn. No exceptions. There were mills closer to home that were stone-grinding corn, but a bit of research turned up an outlet that could get me the requisite corn for these early Johnny cakes—from Gray’s Grist Mill in, of course, Rhode Island. Gray’s has been grinding corn for 360 years, so I was getting a bit of history with my history.

In time, the focus of my research narrowed, of necessity, and turned into the book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. However, I am still in contact with Gray’s Grist Mill, as I wouldn’t want to try to pass of something as an authentic Johnny cake without their stone-ground Rhode Island Narragansett flint corn meal.

Of course, if you’re not making Johnny cakes, you can use a wider range of corn varieties (and I do, as there are a lot more things to do with corn meal than just make Johnny cakes). You can search for local historic grist mills (there are many still operating) or just buy a good brand at the local grocery store. But every once in a while, it’s fun to indulge in something a bit more historic. So, in fact you’re interested, here’s the site for Gray’s: http://www.graysgristmill.com/grays/

And, should you wish to see a bit of what they do, here’s a video of their operation and their current miller at work.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, History, Travel, Video

Corn Silk Tea

Most folks are at least somewhat aware that corn has many uses. But I just encountered a new one (new to me, that is). An article in Plate Magazine reports that New York’s Atoboy Restaurant offers on their drink menu a beverage that is particularly suited to their cuisine: corn silk tea.

The article, written by Amy Cavanaugh, relates that the restaurant’s co-owner Ellia Park says the beverage reflects her Korean heritage. The article notes that the corn silk is dried for three to four days before it’s ready to be brewed, then just steep it in boiling for 10 to 15 minutes. It can be served hot or iced.

Cavanaugh shares Park’s description of the beverage: “There’s a natural nutty flavor with some sweetness.” Sounds nice.

If you like knowing what is going on in the restaurant world, Plate is a great resource. I have had the great good fortune of writing for Plate (a piece on the culinary history of the Caribbean), but I liked them before that. And now I have another reason to like them: they’ve introduced me to something else that can be made with corn.

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Filed under Corn, Food, Travel, Uncategorized

High Fructose Corn Syrup

While I address the existence of high fructose corn sweetener in my book, Midwest Maize, I don’t mention it in the presentation I offer on corn history. I stick to history with that—the fun stuff, like Thomas Jefferson planting corn in Paris, where corn puffs come from, and how corn is associated with everything from vampires to the Chicago Bears. However, when the presentation is done, it is almost inevitable that someone asks about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). My answer has always been essentially that there is no sweetener that is safe in the quantities that most Americans consume.

Happily, at a recent symposium on corn presented by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, I got an even better and more complete answer to this from Dr. Kantha Shelke, a food scientist who specializes in how ingredients affect humans. Shelke, who is employed by Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based science and research firm, offered remarkable insight into HFCS, as well as other sweeteners.

Interestingly, breaking down various sweeteners chemically, it turns out that honey has more fructose than HFCS 42 (the HFCS used in food). And blue agave syrup has a LOT more fructose. HFCS 42 is 58% glucose (this is the form of sugar that our bodies use and, in fact, produce, when enzymes break down what we eat) and 42% fructose. Honey is 51% glucose and 49% fructose. Blue agave syrup is 75% fructose—and can be as much as 97% fructose, depending on the brand.

Regardless of the source, fructose is fructose, and the body does not know the difference between sources of fructose. The problem is that, while the body can easily process glucose, it can only process a limited amount of fructose. Once your liver has processed as much fructose as it can handle, it turns the rest to fat. And this is true whether the fructose comes from HFCS or a big glass of orange juice in the morning (or the apple juice that every small child I see seems to have in its bottle). Fructose is fructose.

I had read a lot of studies that fruit juice consumption led to obesity, but this made it clear why. I had also read that agave syrup was not healthful. But now I had the numbers that explained that as well.

What it comes down to is, as I suspected, what Shelke called the “chronic over-consumption” of sweeteners in general. And artificial sweeteners are not a better option, since your brain reacts to sweet, regardless of whether it is “real” or not. The release of insulin, if it doesn’t not find actual sugar to process, can wind up turning against natural sugars in joints or corneas, and it is thought that this might be part of why we’ve seen an increase in the number of people with cataracts.

Oh, and just as an fyi, corn syrup is 100% glucose, and it’s a lot less sweet than fructose.

Dr. Shelke’s presentation included a great deal of other fascinating information. If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, I’d encourage you to try to hear her.

But what this means is you don’t have to panic if there is a little HFCS in your bottle of ketchup, but you really shouldn’t consume the stunning amounts of sugar (in any form) that most Americans consume. So, it’s not the HFCS in and of itself. As Shelke noted, “There are no bad ingredients. Just bad diets.”

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