Lend her an ear and she'll tell you about corn cultures


Chicago -- To know the story of corn is to know the story of America, says Betty Fussell.

She deems corn the most important food to spring from the black, loamy soil of the nation's breadbasket and so has written "The Story of Corn" (Knopf, $30), a 333-page tome on the myths, history, culture and agriculture of America's quintessential crop.

Lend her an ear, if you will, and Ms. Fussell will tell a fascinating story that touches so many aspects of our culture.

Learn that corn is used in hundreds of products, from corn soup to ethanol. That 5,000 years ago, it was the most important crop in the Western Hemisphere and, arguably, still is. That it was at the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 and that it was worshiped in ancient Central and South American civilizations. And that Ms. Fussell swears she never met an American who didn't like corn.

"It's humbling because you can keep digging and still find no end to it," she said during a recent telephone interview from her New York apartment. "The story of corn is so broad and deep, you can only touch the tip of it.

"Our forebears came to a country where there were a number of ancient, well-established and very sophisticated cultures. Except for the Northwest Coast Indians, every one of them was highly dependent on corn."

Ms. Fussell holds a doctorate in English literature from Rutgers University; she has written five books on food, including "I Hear America Cooking."

"Food, once it is related to human behavior, becomes a vital subject. Food is universal, it's essential and it's intimate. One of the best ways to get at our past is through food. Particularly corn," she says.

To understand the full scope of corn in America, it is necessary to shuck the myopic view that sees corn only on the ear, in the can, frozen or ground into cornmeal. Ms. Fussell's more penetrating gaze zeros in on its impact on America. She notes that where corn goes, civilization follows:

"Several years ago, many people were trying to answer the question of whether there is such a thing as an American cuisine. As I looked for an answer, it was so apparent that corn was the common thread in everything American. You find in corn the glue of our ethnic diversity."

Throughout the book, Ms. Fussell mixes ancient history with today's story of corn. Her own family's history is rooted in agriculture, and she uses this heritage as a stepping-off point for a book that traverses with agility among Zuni corn-growing, Kellogg's cereals, the Mayan culture, pioneer uses for corn, the names bestowed upon corn and the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

Ms. Fussell has collected a staggering number of facts. Next time you nosh on an ear of corn, pause and consider some of the nibblets she serves:

* Corn was here when Christopher Columbus arrived and, from all indications, long before that. There is evidence of corn cultivation in Mexico dating to 6000 to 5000 B.C. It was one of the foods the New World gave to the Old World, and it spread across Europe with relative speed.

* The United States is the world's largest producer of corn. Second place goes to a country generally thought of as the rice capital: China. It was brought to China via the trade routes during the 1500s.

* Of the roughly 200 million metric tons of corn grown in the United States each year, 85 percent of it is fed to animals, which in turn contributes to our meat-based diet. Beyond that, corn is made into corn oil and corn syrup, a product that turns up in cough drops and toothpaste, baby food and hot dogs. It is pressed into cornstarch, which readies it for a wealth of products, from surgical gloves to shotgun shells, penicillin to paper goods. Hundreds of products involve corn.

* On a hot day, an acre of mature corn plants gives off as much as 720 tons of moisture via transpiration. That's the equivalent of seven inches of rainfall.

* When people say they can hear corn grow, they're not crazy. Cornstalks grow from nodes. When the internodes (the space between the nodes) slide out of their sheaves, they make a noise that sharp-eared farmers can hear.

* English settlers called it Indian corn. But American Indians called it maize. The Irish call it stir-about, the Romanians call it mamaliga. Zuni Indians called it ta'a, the seed of seeds. Peruvian Indians had at least eight names for it, depending on which form the kernels were in.

* Sweet corn consumption accounts for only 1 percent of the total American corn market. Nevertheless, that 1 percent translates to 3 pounds of shucked corn per person per year.

* Americans are most likely to smear their ears of corn with butter and douse it with salt, but that is not the only way to indulge. In Iran, they roast it, then soak it in brine. South east Asians brush it with salted coconut milk. Chinese anoint it with soy sauce and Mexicans with ground chili pepper. Peruvians wrap it in grilled cheese.

* There are dozens of sweet corn festivals in Illinois each summer, the largest held in Hoopeston, the self-proclaimed "Sweet Corn Capital of the World," over the Labor Day weekend. Last year about 80,000 people showed up for fun and free corn, eating up 45 tons of it.

Has Ms. Fussell included everything about her subject? Likely not. The manuscript was trimmed from 900 pages to its more compact size.

Plus, she never answered the burning, age-old question of the proper way to eat an ear of corn: Do you eat it from end to end or around and around?

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