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.
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.
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.
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
While folks on the coasts sometimes denigrate, or at least dismiss, the Midwest, the Heartland is a glorious region with a rich history. It also happens to be where you’ll find the metropolis that Condé Nast Traveler has identified as the nation’s top restaurant city: Chicago. But with more than 12,000 restaurants, how do you know where to eat? Well, if you want to eat fabulously, from top flight to low-cost gems, you could not do better than to go with Michael Gebert, James Beard Award-winning food writer and videographer. If you’re wondering how you can get Gebert to show you around town, he has already solved that problem, with his dandy little book, The Fooditor 99–a slim but insightful guide book to his 99 favorite Chicago restaurants.
Cuban, Thai, Ukrainian, Japanese, Mexican, French, American, barbecue, small plates, seafood, sandwiches, dim sum, diner, and lots more, are listed by cuisine, by location in the city, and in the order Gebert delights in them. Gebert not only guides you to great places, he even helps you figure out what to order when you’re there. So if you’re interested in grazing your way through some of the most interesting food in the Windy City, The Fooditor 99 is a mighty useful way to explore the glories of the town’s dining scene. Yum.
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.