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.
Filed under Corn, Food, Video
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shortly before my book came out, I was working at the Culinary Historians booth at a Whole Foods heirloom foods fair. There were a lot of interesting offerings, from vegetables and fruits to packets of seeds to fragrant flowers. In the booth next to the Culinary Historians booth there were people offering samples of a remarkable heirloom popcorn with tiny kernels. When there was a lag in the traffic, the women staffing that booth offered us some of the popcorn they were promoting. It was tiny but flavorful — living up to its name, Tiny but Mighty.
Then today, on YouTube, this video appeared among the suggestions for my viewing pleasure (interesting how they figure out what is likely to catch one’s attention). It was about that tiny popcorn. The video, however, showed more than the demo at Whole Foods, including that one seed gives you many stalks. This interested me because the plant from which corn originally developed, teosinte, while smaller than even this diminutive corn, likewise has many branches — and it pops. So more than just being an heirloom, this popcorn seems to be a real throw back to earlier varieties–much earlier. So it has now been added to my shopping list — but I thought I’d also share the video. Enjoy.
Thanks to a recommendation from fellow food historian Rachel Laudan, when Eater needed an expert on corn for some videos they had in mind, they contacted me. Their main interest was in the very early history of corn—essentially stuff limited to chapter 1 of my book. But it was still great fun sharing tales with them—and then seeing my name at the end of the videos (which are very cleverly animated). No wealth coming from this, but a little recognition is greatly appreciated.
If you’re interested, here are the two videos that were the result: