“You can give an overview of the history of corn,” said John T. Edge in his confident, persuasive voice, ignoring my demurral that in spite of lots of experience with corn in Mexico, I was an expert neither on corn (maize to non-Americans) in America nor on the American South. So I meekly accepted the challenge.
But John was not finished. “It would be nice,” he added, “since yours will be the last talk if you could weave in references to all the earlier papers as well.”
Thus in mid October 2016, I turned up as the Fall Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance on “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Problem” in Oxford, Mississippi. For years, I’d wanted to go to one of the SFA meetings, legendary for the quality of their papers, the excellent food, and the general good fellowship and bonhomie. The event lived up to expectations and if you ever get the chance, do go. And if that’s not possible, spend a few minutes on their web site to get a sense of the wealth of their activities: films, podcasts, scholarships, publications, oral histories, and more.
It turned out I loved doing the research for my presentation. In brief, I argued that attitudes to maize in the American colonies and United States have been through four stages.
First, among the early settlers puzzlement at how to understand this grain that was so different from the wheat, oats, barley, millet and rye of Europe.
Second, from the colonial period to just after the Civil War, pride in corn as plentiful, nutritious, Protestant, and republican food, perfect for yeoman farmers and appropriate to all those who rejected European monarchies based on low-yielding, finicky, wheat.
Third, once wheat became abundant and inexpensive in the late nineteenth century thanks to the industrialization of agriculture and milling and inexpensive steam transport, disdain outside the South for corn as not as nutritious as wheat (no gluten hence low in protein). It was not a good food for an expanding nation and empire. It was the resort of the the poor who could not afford anything better (and animals). Once corn was linked to the terrible deficiency disease, pellagra, this attitude hardened further.
Fourth, in the twenty first century, a growing disdain for all grains as mere “carbs.”
Should you want more, here’s the very nicely edited video, The Mutability of Maize.
Sadly, there wasn’t time to link maize to think with maize to cook. There’s another whole story there and one that has barely been told. It says a lot about different national attitudes to maize than in Mexico there’s a wealth of material on the role of maize in Mexican culture while in the United States there’s very little on the role of corn in American culture.
The secondary sources I found particularly useful were these.
Nicholas P. Hardeman, Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks: Corn as a Way of Life in Pioneer America (Louisiana State University Press, 1981).
Betty Fussell, The Story of Corn (Knopf, 1992).
John Egerton, Southern Food (University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
Anthony Boutard, Beautiful Corn (New Society, 2012).
Adrian Miller, Soul Food (University of North Carolina, 2013)
Cynthia Clampitt, Midwest Maize (University of Illinois Press, 2015).