The Corn Belt: doubtless, you’ve heard the term, what many call the great U.S. heartland. Perhaps, you’ve driven through miles of corn fields mid summer where, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” Chicago journalist and food historian Cynthia Clampitt’s new book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland explores the profound impact of those golden kernels (equally delicious boiled, roasted, or popped) on the economy and history of the great Midwest, and indeed, the nation. And it’s a fascinating read: well researched and beautifully written in a clear, warm voice.
You may think, “Eh, corn. Who cares, as long as it tastes good with butter?” But corn–or more accurately–maize is a much more important crop, as ubiquitous (for better or worse as corn syrup sweetener) in processed foods as it is in your gas tank (as ethanol produced from corn).
Zea mays, better known as maize, is ours: born in America. Or should I say, in the Americas? When I think of maize, images of Native Americans, Indian corn, maize pudding, and Oklahoma (where I once tasted genuine maize pudding while visiting a vast and beautiful Indian reservation as a kid) pop into my head. This cereal grass, which the indigenous peoples of the Americas called maize, had sustained them for millennia. And when Columbus, and those who followed, came to the New World, maize sustained them too. And so begins our relationship with maize. So important was the little kernel, that it became known as “corn,” a European term for the dominant grain of any location.
And within “our location,” more than half the corn is grown in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota (Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri and Kansas, according to the book, are other significant corn-producing states). And it by this multi-tasking crop that much of the great Corn Belt is defined: its economy, its politics, its history. And as Clampitt reminds us in Midwest Maize, corn is the very symbol of farming in the U.S. Growing up in Chicago, I can think of no better avatar for the family farm than corn silo, a structure that dots every rural landscape across this land.
Midwest Maize is a great read on the history of the Midwest through a unique perspective. Leafing through Clampitt’s book the first time I opened it, I couldn’t help stopping every few pages as something caught my eye: a bit of history, a scientific note, a political conflict affected (or caused) by corn. And then there are the recipes including Corndodgers, traditional corn puddings, cornmeal mush, fritters, chowders and baked delights.
Most of us associate corn with edibles: popcorn and corn on (or off) the cob, corn flakes (and other corn-based cereals), corn chips (and so much more!). But Midwest Maize goes beyond (and within) corn kernel, exploring its reach into less visible uses: distilling into corn whiskey, most abundant in the pre-prohibition days, wet milling into cornstarch, corn syrups (including the controversial high fructose corn syrup), vegetable oil.
Clampitt urges us to dig a little deeper into our collective memory, and beyond the obvious sources of our affection for corn: corncob pipes (made famous by Mammy Yokum in “Lil Abner”), yesteryear’s cornhusk dolls, cornstalks made into decorative autumn displays. But she also sets our sights into the future, presenting corn and its byproducts as adaptable to an infinite number of biodegradable items–using the entire stalk (thereby reducing waste), and creating an entire universe of environmentally sound products! Although Midwest Maize is mostly a book that celebrates corn and our uniquely American relationship with it, Clampitt does not gloss over the current corn controversies, including the use of corn as a biofuel, and the development of genetically modified corn.
As I write this review and leaf again through the pages of Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, pausing now at the recipe for an 1800s recipe, “Baked Indian Corn Pudding,” and wondering if it will taste like the real thing I sampled all those years ago in Oklahoma.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0252080572,1419663062]