Woe is corn. This ancient grain, cultivated for millennia for its edible seeds called kernels, may very well be the world’s most misused and misunderstood vegetable. It may be the most American of vegetables, too, having represented so much more than food for generations of inhabitants of the Americas. Recently, corn has taken center stage in discussions about Americans’ eating habits (see Michael Pollan‘s excellent books and the eye-opening documentary King Corn). Permutations of the product have been found in such a shockingly high percentage of our groceries that Pollan–in a sigh of disgust–has reduced Americans to “processed corn, walking.” But corn hasn’t always been vilified as the downfall of our diet, but was once considered as valuable as gold.
A caveat, dear readers: The subject of corn and its relationship with America is much too complicated and far-reaching to cover satisfyingly in this blog. That said, I encourage you to read on for a few interesting kernels of information I’ve dug up on the topic (and please excuse my corny puns along the way).
a golden history
The first domestication of corn, or maize, dates back to sometime around 9000 or 8000 BC. Fast forward a few thousand years, and you’ll find the Mayan and Olmec civilizations of present-day Mexico and Central America up to their ears in ears, having established corn as a staple of their diet. There is evidence that maize was elevated to a sacred status in these cultures, as well, and that the grain played an important role in religious rituals.
For many Native American tribes, and, later on, for the early colonists, corn served as an important means of trade. According to one source, colonists paid their taxes, rents, and debts using corn as currency, and even exchanged the crop for marriage licenses. In some ways, this glorification of corn is not too far a cry from its status today. The way Pollan paints the picture, corn is so vital to America’s food industry that the government continues to do everything in its power to keep farmers cultivating it, despite the heavy toll its influence has taken on our health:
“Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” –Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
A couple years ago, in a valiant effort to restore high fructose corn syrup’s tarnished name, the Corn Refiners Association unleashed their “Sweet Surprise” ad campaign, a venture that has since been harshly criticized as propaganda. The series of ads released by the Association attempts to dispel myths about HFCS and assure consumers–particularly parents–that HFCS intake is perfectly all right in moderation. A couple of the ads from this campaign–the so-called “Party” ad and the “Two Bites” ad–were directly responded to by the team behind the documentary King Corn, a film that seeks to enlighten the masses on the corn industry’s role in America’s obesity epidemic. With amusing smugness, the King Corn team released two spoof ads (spoof ad #1 and spoof ad #2). The jokers at Saturday Night Live also got in on the fun in a skit that parodies the Party ad. The spoofs may be a bit corny, but I definitely shuckled–I mean, chuckled. I recommend you check ’em out.
a kernel more of corn culture
As you may or may not know (I was unaware until very recently) Nebraska University has been invited to join the Big 10 Conference, effective as of last month. What this means for me and my schoolmates is that sometime this coming November, a frightening new breed of mascot will be patrolling the University of Michigan’s Big House (read: football stadium). The fearsome face of our brand new opponent? The Cornhuskers. The Nebraska Cornhuskers. Does no one else find this ridiculous?
What I find even more puzzling is the history of said team name. If you don’t know already, let me fill you in. Just about the turn of the century, a well-known sportswriter coined the name as a replacement for the team’s previous moniker, the Nebraska Bugeaters. His reasoning? He thought the team deserved a more glamorous title. And so he chose the Cornhuskers.
I guess I shouldn’t smirk too quickly, though. Corn does enjoy a history of worshipful reverence–today and thousands of years ago–so perhaps, in that sense, glamorous is precisely the right word.