“We are stardust / We are golden / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” So sang Joni Mitchell on her 1970 anthem, “Woodstock”, capturing the cosmic connection people felt with Mother Earth during the heyday of the countercultural movement. But had Mitchell kept a keener eye on the American agricultural revolution that swept the Midwest after the Second World War, she might have more accurately sung: “We are corn starch, we are golden.”
Corn holds a central role in the US food chain, a fact that signals the dramatic changes that have occurred in farming there over the past 60 years. Analysis of hair and skin samples of Americans has found a greater presence of carbon – with corn’s tell-tale isotopic signature. And in 2008, analysis of fast food across the US found that 93 per cent of all meat tissue sampled was derived from corn – that is, it came from entirely corn-fed cows or chicken.
Corn began life as a Central American grass that was first domesticated around 10,000 years ago. It was introduced to European settlers by the indigenous people there and became an essential crop to sustain them as they ventured west. But corn (also known as maize) finally secured its place at the American dining table through its ability to fit the industrial age of farming that has blossomed since the 1950s. Today, much of the American Midwest is defined by maize; 96 million acres of land are designated for growing the crop, which is nearly ten million acres more than the size of Germany. And this monoculture has found its way to the very heart of the modern American diet.
Those ripe ears of maize are used in myriad ways: as corn flour, corn starch, colouring, corn syrup, vegetable oil for cooking and even vegetable wax to give fresh fruit an alluring sheen in grocery stores. You can find corn as an ingredient in everything from soft drinks and beer to processed foods such as chicken nuggets, coffee whitener and soup. It has been estimated that of the 45,000 items on the shelves of the average American supermarket, more than a quarter contain maize in some form.
Corn’s grip on America doesn’t end with food – it has also slipped into slang too. In the 1930s, seed catalogues sent to Midwestern farmers contained old jokes – the kind that would have you groaning rather than belly laughing. These corn jokes, designed to appeal to rustic folk, came to stand for all gentle, sentimental humour, thus “corny” entered the lexicon. “The great turning point in the modern history of corn...” wrote Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his 2006 survey of the US diet, “can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertiliser”. That switch to a more intensive form of modern farming, Pollan argues, suited corn just fine, and the crop has thrived ever since.
Today, the US is the largest grower of corn, with 20% of its crop exported, and is also its largest consumer. And whereas the average yield per acre was about 20 bushels in 1920, today it stands at more than 200 per acre. As yields have grown, the Midwest Corn Belt has changed; there are few fences and little beyond the sea of corn that stretches from horizon to shining horizon.
But for all its adaptability and its usefulness as everything from a sweetener in soft drinks to oil for frying chicken, at heart corn is a simple, honest food. Whether served as creamed corn, corn chowder or corn dogs – a sausage coated in cornmeal batter on a stick – or in foodstuffs such as grits, a Southern staple a little like porridge that is made from boiled ground maize – corn is a homely, comforting ingredient. It's perhaps at its very best when the freshly husked golden ears are steamed, boiled or grilled, slathered with butter and eaten with your fingers in the company of friends. Or the tight little kernels popped in hot oil, lightly salted and consumed as popcorn in front of that other great bastion of US culture, a Hollywood movie.
Forget apple pie; there’s nothing as American as corn.