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
Category Archives: Language
The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the thousands of books submitted, is still gratifying.
Next place we visited was the Washington Historical Society Museum. I like small-town museums, but this exceeded expectations—partly because it was such a beautifully and lovingly organized collection and partly because Washington had a history that surpassed my expectation. The region became part of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase and, once settlers began to come, trade on the Missouri River made it prosperous.
The museum highlighted the role the river played in local and national history, local businesses over two centuries, decorative arts, plants and animals, involvement in the Civil War and two World Wars, and more.
The area was largely settled by Germans, so German influence was much in evidence. Two elements of German culture in particular, revealed by impressive displays, fascinated me. The first was the display on the Turn Verein in Washington. I looked these words up, and Turn is from the German Turnen, which means “practice gymnastics” and Verein means “club or union.” So gymnastics club. Old films ran of precision teams doing synchronized exercises. Photos and displays showed equipment and members, and info cards explained a bit of the history. Founded in 1859, the Washington Turn Verein took a break during the Civil War, but then started up again. This was not a local movement, but rather an international phenomenon. From 1878 to 1897, Washington, MO, was the Turn Verein Headquarters for the United States.
Then, upstairs, we browsed through antiques, photographic equipment, Native American artifacts, and other local historic items. The largest exhibit, however, was of Franz Schwarzer and his zithers. There was a monitor with a video available—a video which, in fact, had been written and produced by Ralph, my guide for this visit. It revealed a remarkable climb by Schwarzer from local artisan to the best zither maker in the world, with a gold medal from the international competition in Austria. During his very productive career, Schwarzer made approximately 11,000 zithers!
Astonishing to realize that this relatively small town (about 14,000 residents) was at one time the focus of national and international attention. The world is always so much more interesting than one expects.
And if you’re interested in more info on Washington, the Historical Society website is very good.
If you’ve read the book Midwest Maize, you’ll know that corn was vitally important to everyone in the United States, from first settlement up to the present. It became a major part of the culture throughout the original colonies. Traditions that developed early on were spread by later migration, with corn chowder following along as New Englanders crossed the continent, grits moving across the southern Midwest as Upland Southerners arrived, and cornbread of various types coming with everyone.
In the era when the American South was known as the Land of Cotton, there was actually more corn being grown than cotton. It was a huge part of everyone’s diet, but was relied on more heavily by the enslaved African American population. In this video, an African American culinary historian demonstrates the dish known as kush, and explains that the term is related to couscous—which means the word had migrated from Africa, along with the people who were making the dish. It is a simple, inexpensive dish, but it looks incredibly good and I can’t wait to try it—though I’ll probably use regular cornbread. Hope you enjoy the little trip to the 18th century.
Despite the fact that this is a National Historic Landmark, you may discover that your GPS can’t get you to this place. Fortunately, if you just drive north on Main St. a couple of miles from the Corn Palace, you’ll see a sign at 23rd Avenue (left turn if you’re heading north), and that will at least direct you to the right road: Indian Village Road. Turn right at Indian Village Road and drive until you see a parking lot on the right, with a few signs suggesting that something is nearby.
Hike down the hill, past information signs with Native American symbols and some very interesting information, cross a little bridge over an inlet of lovely Lake Mitchell, and follow the path up the low hill on the far side. This will bring you to the Prehistoric Indian Village Museum. It’s worth the small effort required to find the place.
What you will reach first is the museum, where you will be introduced to the culture of the people who inhabited this point of land around AD 900–1000. There is a short, excellent movie on the people who once inhabited this area, followed by a docent-led tour, and then you can explore on your own. It is not a large museum, but the exhibits are rich with artifacts and information. Roughly 1.5 million artifacts have been found at this sight, and many of them are on display in the museum. A full-size reconstructed lodge, like the ones that housed the original inhabitants, offers insight into what living conditions were like.
Wood poles make up the roof of the lodge, and it was these that eventually required that the people move. There is very little wood on the Great Plains, so after about 100 years, there was no source of wood left, so the people migrated northward. It is thought that they were the ancestors of the Mandan, people who hosted Lewis and Clark when they arrived a few hundred years later.
Abundant maps and signs help establish where people settled and how they moved around, where languages originated, and what trade goods passed through.
The people who lived here were part of a vast trading network. The patterns on the pottery can be traced to Cahokia in Illinois. Only broken pots have been found, however, because they would have taken unbroken pots with them when they moved.
The trade good that was produced here appears to have been pemmican, a handy “energy bar” made of dried meat (generally bison), dried berries, and fat, that was great for travel or to get through a rough winter. The evidence that suggests this as an important trade good includes a disproportionately large number of broken buffalo bones—far more than could be consumed by the people in the village—along with equipment and supplies that would be used in creating pemmican.
Corn had come north with these people, as well as squash and beans, and these were in evidence in the exhibit, as were tools used in farming these crops. A hoe made of the shoulder blade of a bison and a rake made of deer antlers were propped up near the lodge, and it struck me that they looked remarkably like tools used in so many other parts of the world, both then and now.
Lots more to learn and see, but I figure I had better leave something for you to discover on your own. Off next to the Archeodome, across the broad, green lawns that border Mitchell Lake.
Historically, all corn is from Oaxaca, a southern state in Mexico. That’s the region where corn/maize first arose, before spreading through the Americas. However, while I was in Oaxaca, learning more about how and when this remarkable grain first arose, I discovered a local application for sweet corn that became a minor addiction.
In Mexico, sweet corn, often still on the cob, is called elote, while the word maíz refers to the type of corn dried for grinding. In the city of Oaxaca, the place I most commonly saw the word elote (or, sometimes, elote exquisto) was on the sides of carts belonging to street vendors who were selling corn on the cob. Near the center of town, these vendors were common, and each one would have his own little spin on how he prepared the elote—but they all had the same basic ingredients. They would pull several fresh, hot ears of sweet corn out of their steamers and let me pick the one I liked best. They would poke a short wooden handle in the end of the cob I’d chosen, and then they would set to work, preparing what became my favorite light meal while I was there. The ingredients may surprise you, but this is absolutely wonderful. Enjoy.
Mexican Corn on the Cob
Fresh, sweet corn on the cob, cooked and hot
Sharp, crumbly cheese, shredded or grated (cotija would be the cheese used in Mexico, but if you can’t get it, Parmesan works well)
Lime wedge (optional)
Salt to taste
You’ll need to figure out the handle issue before you get started. In Mexico, the handles are made of short pieces of wood cut to suit, but a blunt knife or maybe a fork could be stuck in the end of the corn cob if you don’t have a piece of wood. (You do need a handle for this. If you don’t have any other way of doing it, you could trim the pointy end of the corn so that you could use those little “corn holders” they sell for eating corn on the cob. However, it’s unlikely those would work if you only had them stuck in one end. So definitely figure this out before you start.) Alternatively, I’ve been to one Latino restaurant where they cut the corn off the cob and just mix the other ingredients into the corn kernels, thus eliminating the need for a handle. You lose the fun of eating corn off the cob, but it is much tidier and still delicious.
Spread a layer of mayonnaise—enough to coat—over the hot corn, then roll the corn in the cheese or sprinkle the cheese over the corn while turning it. (My favorite vendors would always put the corn down in the cheese and heap it on top, to make sure the ear got well coated, then they’d let the excess fall off.) Then sprinkle with chile powder and salt to taste (though you may not need salt, as the mayo and cheese are salty — so try it first). A few vendors finished this off with a squeeze of lime, which is a nice, fresh touch, but I didn’t find that this appreciably altered my enjoyment of the dish, and it can make it drippy, and thus messier to eat.
I visited the barn and all the work sheds and out buildings, but I spent the most time in the old farmhouse. Here, a delightfully entertaining docent (Wayne, a former forest ranger) regaled me with stories of life on an 1890 farm.
By 1890, kitchens were fairly modern, at least compared to 50 years earlier. Stoves (vs. open fire places) were available, and iceboxes offered at least some ability to keep things cool and preserved. A pump at the sink brought in rainwater from a cistern, so no hauling water from a well.
In the first photo, you can see not only the “new” wood-burning stove, but also, on the wall nearby, the bathtub. Kitchens would be the only rooms with running water and, during the winter, the only ones that were warm. In the second photo, some kitchen essentials, including a butter tub and coffee grinder (in a style still available) sit atop the icebox.
A nice kitchen was important, because the kind of work done on a farm called for lots of meal preparation. People consumed upwards of 6,000 calories a day (though a large man might consume 10,000 or more), so five meals a day were the norm. A big breakfast was served at 6:00 or 6:30. Around 9:30 or 10:00, there would be a break for a light meal (cornbread was a popular choice). Dinner was served at noon. This was the main meal of the day. Another break, or “lunch,” came at around 3:00 pm, and the final meal would be supper, around 6:00 pm or after the sunset. (I did a little post-visit research on the word “lunch,” and learned that it is shortened from “luncheon,” which in the 1600s came to mean “light repast between meals,” and earlier meant “a large piece of food” or “thick piece, hunk”—I’m guessing of bread, since that was a common element of a meal for those handling ploughs, and even today, a “ploughman’s lunch” in England will get you a hunk of cheese and thick piece of bread, along with a bit of salad and pickle, in almost any pub in the country.)
Popcorn might be served with cream and sugar for breakfast. Wayne assured me that this was an awesome way to consume popcorn. He also related that popped corn was sometimes crushed with a rolling pin, with the white flakes being picked out and mixed with homemade marshmallow, in what would have been roughly the equivalent of Rice Krispie Treats.
The big meals were taken in the dining room. In the winter, families that had servants might have the servants stand in the dining room, to add a bit more body heat.