Category Archives: Corn

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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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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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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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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I Get To Talk Corn on the Radio

Radio station WDCB FM (90.9 in Chicagoland) invited me to talk about corn for their Sunday-morning show First Light. The interview actually lasted quite a bit longer than the 15 minutes that finally got broadcast, but I think it still gets across that corn is a very fun topic. (Though I was surprised the show’s charming host, Brian O’Keefe, left out the story about the invention of corn puffs.) If you have any interest in hearing what I shared, they’ve posted the broadcast on their website: https://www.wdcbfirstlight.org/news/2017/9/24/youll-see-corn-differently

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Food, History, Language, Midwest, Midwest Maize

Corn Salsa

Staying busy these days, so it might be a while before I post further about my travels around the Midwest. But it’s summer, and good sweet corn is beginning to appear in farmers’ markets, so I figured I can at least help you use some of summer’s bounty. Thought this corn salsa from Byron Talbott looked mighty tasty.

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E-Z Pop

In the 1950s, Benjamin Coleman of Berkley, Michigan, invented a fuss-free method of making popcorn. The popcorn was packed in its own pan and had a foil tent that expanded as the popcorn popped. If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that description is Jiffy Pop, you could be forgiven for the error, since it became better known, but Coleman’s product, marketed by the Taylor Reed Corporation, was called E-Z Pop.

Five years after E-Z Pop hit the market, inventor Frederick Mennen of LaPorte, Indiana, created a similar device and called it Jiffy Pop. American Home Products bought Mennen’s creation in 1959, and soon took it national. Not too surprisingly, Taylor Reed sued, because the products were so similar. Initially, they won the suit, but it was later overturned. Apparently, the two products were just enough different to satisfy a judge. E-Z Pop began to fade from the scene. (In all fairness to Mennen, almost every invention in history had lots of people working on the same idea at the same time. Nothing arises in a vacuum. Popcorn was popular and making it more accessible was on many minds.)

Though E-Z Pop vanished, a few of us remember the name (my mom even remembers buying it) and the ads, which ran into the ‘60s. Playing on the rhyme of pop and bop, E-Z Pop used a jazzy presentation for their creation.

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