Category Archives: Culture

“Smarter Every Day” Looks at Grain Bins

I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.

Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.

Here’s Destin’s video.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Video

Making Bacon

Being wildly busy these day, I’ve been relying on great videos to keep this blog interesting, rather than writing essays to post about places I’ve traveled in the Midwest (though more of that will be coming). I won’t apologize for this, because these are all really worthwhile videos that I want to share anyway.

I have posted a fair number of videos by or about farmers—because that is where our food comes from. But today, I’m posting a video by a science-oriented chef who talks about how bacon is made, why you might want to try making bacon, how to cook bacon—and why bacon is so tasty. With a book out on pigs, I simply couldn’t resist. Enjoy.

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Filed under Culture, Food, pigs, pork, Video

Midwest Maize Meets Mexican Hogs

There are times that it is difficult to decide where a post goes. This blog focuses on the Midwest–the people, the history, the places–and The World’s Fare focuses on my adventures, primarily culinary, around the world. But I just posted a recipe on The World’s Fare that includes both corn and pork, mainstays of Midwestern agriculture and cuisine–but the recipe is one I found in Mexico. It is Pozole Rojo, a delightful, hearty soup that brings together these two cornerstones of both Midwestern and Mexican life. So definitely the fare of another land, but still related to the Midwest. Therefore, I posted it there and am just linking to it here. (Though Brazilian cornstarch cookies are on this site–so clearly not always easy to draw those lines.)

Anyway, for the recipe, click this link–Pozole Rojo--and enjoy a delightful soup that brings together a couple of world culinary icons.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, Recipe, Uncategorized

At the Iowa State Fair

I have for several years followed a British YouTube cooking show called “Sorted.” It’s good fun and offers some imaginative recipes. But every once in a while, they wander off to show us something outside the kitchen — usually around London, but sometimes in the U.S. This video was published on Oct. 14–which was just two days before my newest book was released–Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs — a book that looks at the history of pigs, as well as current trends in raising and consuming pork. The book covers about 12,000 years, but it has a fair bit about the culture of Iowa–and the Iowa State Fair, the destination for the Sorted crew in this video. And I was happy to see that they feature some of the special dishes mentioned in the book, including the Iowa Pork Chop, the Pork Chop on a Stick, and the Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. (The book even includes a recipe for this last item.) So I was delighted at both the timing and the content of the video, as it makes it possible to share a bit of the noisy joy of a state fair — and a look at Iowa’s pork culture. (And a bit of Iowa’s corn culture, as well — which features in my book Midwest Maize. Iowa is # 1 in both corn production and pig raising.)

So here are the four Sorted lads enjoying a bit of Midwestern hospitality and food at the Iowa State Fair.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Heartland Hogs, Midwest, Midwest Maize, pigs, Travel, Video

Brazilian Cornstarch Cookies

Between working for a couple of years with Maria Baez Kijac on her iconic cookbook The South American Table and my own interest in corn from my book, Midwest Maize, I knew I had to try these cookies as soon as I learned of their existence.

These tasty confections melt in your mouth. Popular in Brazil, they are generally served with hot coffee in the afternoon. They are easy to make—and they are gluten free. Plus they allow for a substantial amount of customization.

The most commonly used brand of cornstarch (aka corn flour) in Brazil is Maizena, so these cookies are often referred to as Maizena cookies, or biscoitos de Maizena, in Portuguese. Because the butter is a chief flavor component of the cookies, use good quality butter, and definitely don’t use butter you’ve had in the freezer for a long time (I did this once, and you can taste that smell things pick up when left in the freezer for too long). And use salted butter. If the only butter you have is unsalted, either buy some salted butter or add a pinch of salt to the recipe.

Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cups salted butter
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups cornstarch

Preparation:
Cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract, then add the corn starch and beat into the mixture. Once thoroughly combined and dough-like, let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Form the dough into 1-inch balls, rolling them in your hand. Place them on a cookie sheet that has been lined with baking parchment or a silicon baking sheet, or just lightly butter the cookie sheet. Then flatten the balls slightly with a fork, leaving the tine pattern in the top of each cookie. Bake on the center rack of your oven for 8 to 10 minutes. They should not brown on top, but a tiny bit of gold on the bottom is okay. Let them cool before handling, as they are delicate when hot. This should produce 36 cookies.

That is all that is needed to make them authentic. Brazilians sometimes toss a bit of shredded coconut into the dough before baking. I think a bit of grated lemon rind would be lovely, or use almond extract instead of vanilla. I thought the white cookies looked a little plain, so I grated a bit of fresh nutmeg over my first batch, cinnamon over the second. Both worked. With so few ingredients, the flavor of the cookie depends heavily on the quality of the butter and the extract.

In an air-tight container, these hold up very well—though I’ve never had them last long enough to find out how long they’ll last.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, Recipe, Uncategorized

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