What We Eat: The Story of Corn - #107

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

 BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On November 4th, 1492, Columbus came ashore on what is now the island of Cuba. The natives greeted him and gave him two gifts. One was tobacco, and one was corn. His diary for the next day contained the following entry:

BURT WOLF: “There was a great deal of tilled land sown with a sort of bean and a sort of grain they called Mahiz, which tasted good. It was baked or dried and made into flour.”

On one day, the American plants of corn and tobacco were introduced to the rest of the world.  The Indians presented their corn to Columbus because it was a valuable food but also because it was the basis of their civilization.

BETTY FUSSELL ON CAMERA: “They used it for every possible food and for every possible sacred ceremonial use because corn is at the heart of all the mythology, all the calendar, all the religions, all the rituals of Meso-America. The original word corn, mahaiz in Arawak, meant seed of life. Because life in the created universe began with corn, with the corn gods, but it’s really with the seed, the womb of life.  Mother Earth was also Mother Corn, being fertilized really by the sun, by the heavens, by Father Sun.  Out of that, the universe sprouts.  But what sprouts?   A corn tree, the corn tree becomes the axle of the universe. A corn plant, you know, and all the cobs on that tree are heads of gods.  So the corn god is represented in the plant. Man was created from a dough of corn and blood.

BURT WOLF: The Indians of Meso-America showed the Spaniards how to grow and store corn. It was a strong plant; it traveled well, grew fast, provided plenty of food and quickly spread throughout the world.

BETTY  FUSSELL ON CAMERA: Corn is amazing in that it changed the way the world eats instantly, that it went around the world, which was after Columbus.  And it - with great speed it developed everywhere it went, because it grows every place.  Every place but the North and South Poles.  So it has this capacity to adapt itself to all kinds of climates and ecologies and, damp, dry, high, low.  So first of all, it could grow everywhere.   Secondly, it could be eaten by both men and animals.  That’s enormously important.  Corn has ended up with this kind of double purpose, as the world’s best animal feed.


BURT WOLF: During the 15 and 1600s, European farmers used oxen to clear their land and then planted their fields by scattering handfuls of grain over the earth. The grains started growing wherever they fell. Farmers waited for the weeds to come up with the crop, then pulled up the weeds.

Native Americans had a very different approach. Before the arrival of the Europeans in America there were no draft animals to help with the farming. Land was cleared by hand using a technique called “slash and burn”. The only tools available were axes and sticks and hoes with blades and points that were made of wood, sea shells, deer antlers, and the shoulder-blades of large animals. 

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: When Europeans got to North America and Central America and South America, they were astounded at the way the Indians did al ... agriculture. They found the Indians had made little mounds, like a ... they had a checkerboard design.  Huge fields, miles and miles and miles in extent.  And each little mound was in its ... exactly in its mathematical place in rows.  And in the mound the Indians would plant a few ... always sort of a religious number, four or six grains in the mound.  So this is all immaculately done, everything clean and clear.

BURT WOLF: Corn, beans, and squash were always planted together and eaten together.

BURT WOLF TO CAMERA: The natives considered them three inseparable sisters, like the Supremes when they first got started. The corn would grow up; the beans would grow up around the corn stalk; and the squash would sit in the land between the corn, helping to hold down the weeds. In some places, they would plant a fish into the mound.  It was considered sacred.  If you didn’t put in the fish, the corn refused to come up. Somehow the natives had figured out that the corn plant needed an enormous number of nutrients and that the fish would supply those nutrients.

BURT WOLF: The Indians always ate corn, beans and squash at the same time and they always added a little burnt wood, or burnt shell during the cooking.

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: And we now know that this is an incredibly intelligent thing to do, that if the Indians had not done that, corn would never have been their staple, because corn is lacking in various nutritional ingredients, you know, things that human beings need. Some of the things it hasn't got and beans and squash add those.  And other things, one particular thing, niacin, is in corn, but human beings can't digest it.  So, the Indians used to add ash to every pot of corn that they cooked. It's recently been discovered that that lime, which is what it is, alkali, that alkali loosened this essential vitamin, niacin, so that human beings can digest it. And it's extraordinary because the Indians used to offer corn to the gods, their sacred food. And they never added ash when they offered it to the gods.  They somehow knew that it was human beings who needed the ash. The gods didn't need it.

BURT  WOLF ON CAMERA: If you try to live on corn alone without the addition of beans, squash and ash you’re going to end up undernourished and eventually develop a disease known as pellagra. In spite of the nutritional advantages of corn, however, it was never really accepted by the Europeans and very few countries got it into their national cuisine. The French still think it’s only fit for animals, and the Irish ignored it until they were almost starving.

BARBARA WHEATON ON CAMERA: The story of corn coming into Europe. It ricochets around the Mediterranean and it gets carried up the rivers, and it… it finds the habitats where it can be happy.  It displaces a grain that had been in very wide use, since at least Roman times, and that's millet, which now survives in this country, I think largely in birdseed mixtures.  Though you can get it in whole food stores, and I like to throw a handful of it into a soup sometimes, just for old times sake.  But in Northern Italy, where they had been making polenta for centuries, they'd been making it with millet.  And, and one of the rules, really, for, for new foodstuffs coming in is, if it looks like something you know, then try cooking it like the thing you know.  And quite often, that works. 

I think one of the things that has made it hard for Europeans to get used to the idea of eating corn is that they have absolutely no understanding there, that there is a difference between field corn and sweet corn.  And again and again, they would plant field corn, and it worked fine if they ground it, but when they would try eating it, they would say it's fit only for animal fodder. 

BURT WOLF: European settlers to North America quickly incorporated corn into their diet.  It was easy to bake corn on a griddle. The result was a firm disc that could be carried on a journey — which is how they came to be called journey cakes, which eventually became Johnnycakes. Pone was the Indian word for corn batter cooked on hot stones. Whipped egg whites were added to produce a corn soufflé called spoon bread. And coarsely ground white cornmeal was called grits. In Mexico, Central and South America corn that had been ground into fine flour was baked into tortillas or fried to make enchiladas.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: The corn that the Mexicans use that was brought to Europe is very bland.  It isn't like our sweet corn. It isn't that tasty. The corn tortilla was a way of making it a little more tasty and more palatable and, of course, making into a bread basically.  Only women in Mexico know how to make tortillas in villages.  And the interesting thing is that Cortez did not have a woman with him when he went to Mexico.   So what happened was that none of his guys learned how to make tortillas.  So they brought back the corn, they brought back the world's stalest tortillas after, I don't know, a month on the sea.  But they didn't bring back the magic formula to make their corn into such a tasty thing that the Mexicans have.

So, I don't think this is the whole account, but I think part of it is that the Europeans didn't get corn the way Mexicans were eating it.  Because of the absence of a culinarily-oriented person, i.e., woman. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you look up the word corn in a dictionary, you will find that it is used to describe the primary grain of a country. If you make a daily bread in wheat then wheat is your corn. Rye is the corn of Sweden. Oats are the corn of Ireland. When the first English-speaking colonists arrived in the New World they realized that the native American Indians were using maize.  And so they called maize “Indian corn.”

BURT WOLF: Maize is a giant grass which produces very large seeds.  Each kernel is really a fruit with an oily seed surrounded by starchy nutrients that are held in a hull. The corn cob and its seed is covered with a husk which makes it easy to harvest, easy to feed to livestock, easy to transport, and easy to store. It could be considered as one of the original packaged foods.

BETTY FUSSELL ON CAMERA: Of the three staples of the world, wheat, rice and corn, they're all from the same family of grasses; that's what we mean by cereal grains. The reason they are staples is that they can be dried, and then you can eat them in the winter time, so it's not just spring. But corn is the only one that you can eat also fresh, as a vegetable.  Because you eat those seeds from the seed bud, which is the ear of corn.   We’re the only country in the world who really developed sweet corn; we're the only people who want corn on the cob, consider that a delicacy…a treat, a necessity for summer.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Corn sounds like the most perfect plant on the planet, so what’s the problem? As is so often the case in relationships — it’s sex. The husk on corn is so strong and so tight that it can’t seed itself.

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: We have this unbelievable plant which has all these soft kernels side by side stuck in a cob with a sheath covering them all.  They are close together, they are tightly held to the cob, and the sheath cannot be removed by nature.  If you let it lie on the ground, it would just simply rot and that's the end of it.  Even if you took the sheath off and threw it on the ground, it would not grow. So corn absolutely and totally depends on human beings to survive.


BURT WOLF: Today there are six major varieties of corn — the oldest is popcorn. Popcorn has a hard hull. When it’s heated, the starch inside the skin of the kernel fills with steam until it bursts. With other types of corn the steam leaks out which is why they don’t pop. Some historians believe that the accidental popping of a hard grain in a fire gave ancient man, or more likely ancient woman, the idea that cereals were edible.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: You have the popcorn beginning as an important American product in New England about 1820, 1830.  And it becomes the celebrity product of this time, with-- with Henry David Thoreau popping corn and writing about it in his journal.  And Emerson saying it’s a wonderful thing to give to the kiddies at Christmastime; it gets them away from the adults.  And you have all these other great Americans talking about the importance of popcorn, which they all considered to be something new and exciting.  So it enters into America from the top down.

When the Depression comes all of a sudden movie owners are confronted with going out of business, or establishing a new revenue stream.  And by far, you make the most amount of money as a snack…out of popcorn. And the price of admission was decreased so that they would get people in so that they would buy popcorn so the theatres could make money.

ORVILLE REDENBACHER ON CAMERA: Hello.  I’m Orville Redenbacher.  If you’ve got forty….

BURT WOLF: The superhero of popcorn, however, was Orville Redenbacher. Orville was an agricultural extension agent in Indiana who came up with a kernel that popped bigger than any kernel had ever popped — fifty times bigger than the kernel.  Until then, kernels had only popped up to thirty-five or forty times their size.

ORVILLE REDENBACHER ON CAMERA: I’d suggest you start with a corn patch.  You want to try about 500,000 cross-pollinations…

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: Popcorn is one of the few foods that’s purchased by weight. So if you increase the volume, you increase your sales. And consequently Orville Redenbacher concluded this was something that was going to revolutionize the popcorn business.  He decided that he needed some marketing help, hired a public relations firm in Chicago, paid them $18,000 and said, “I need help with a name for this.” And after considering this very carefully for about two and a half hours they said, we have the right name for your new popcorn. And Orville said “What is it?” And they said, “Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popping Corn.” And Orville kind of scratched his head and said, “Well, my mother thought that was a good name, so therefore it should be a good name for my product, too.” Now, there were not gourmet foods at that time. But in one way, Orville Redenbacher created the market for gourmet food.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Corn is the plant with the ultimate shelf life. Scientists have been able to pop corn kernels that are over a thousand years old. Native American Indians would hide corn kernels under mounds of earth for use during the winter or during periods of war. As a matter of fact, the English colonists who where starving to death during the winter of 1620, were able to survive because they came upon hidden hoards of Indian corn.

BURT WOLF: The world’s largest corn crop is called dent, which is a reference to the dimple in the top edge of every kernel. It’s sweet and starchy. Native Americans thought of it as a prime symbol of the female and maternal aspect of the goddess of corn.

In a healthy cornfield, the plants grow slowly during the day but fast at night. Under ideal conditions a corn plant will grow four and a half inches within 24 hours.

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: A lot of American farmers have said that they heard their corn growing, and people sort of say, "Oh, come on."  It's a plant which is very large... its growth involves unfurling leaves.  So if it's growing, a leaf will suddenly unfurl, and it makes a sound, and it scrapes the stalk.  And if ... you can hear it.  And in fact I actually have heard it.  It has to be the peak growing season, and you've got to have patience as well. You've got to sit there for a while.  But you can hear these unfurling leaves, it's really quite eerie.


BURT WOLF: During the 1930s and 40s, farmers in the United States and Canada began to alter their operations so that much of the work could be done by machine. The United States started producing more than half of the world’s corn, over 250 million metric tons per year. And eighty percent of that crop was grown in the Corn Belt, an area of 350,000 square miles that runs from western Ohio to eastern Nebraska, with the largest tonnage coming from Iowa and Illinois.

American chicken and beef are fed on corn and cornstalks which means that both meat and milk are part corn. Even the stamp on meat that marks its grade is made with corn oil. In fact, 85 percent of the corn grown in the United States is used to feed animals.

BETTY  FUSSELL ON CAMERA: Columbus’s discovery of corn in the New World changed the diet of the world. Because when this kind of fodder became available to animals, it really tipped the balance in America, where we have all this space for animals - it tipped the balance toward a diet of meat, replacing grain.  Meat and dairy.  So we became the giant meat eaters, and that became the model, in a way, for the rest of the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s almost impossible to buy anything in an American supermarket that hasn’t been affected by American corn.

The golden color that we associate with our soft drinks comes from corn syrup.  Almost all of our frozen foods contain corn starch or corn oil.  Candies are formed in corn starch.  Soap contains corn oil.  Everything that goes into a can, or almost everything that goes into a can, is given a light coating of corn oil to keep it from sticking.  Beers, vodka, gin often contain corn. And all the packaging, the plastic bags, the boxes that our pasta go into, contains corn.

BURT WOLF: A key corn product is corn starch.  A white, odorless, tasteless powder, it’s used in the production of thousands of products —toothpastes, detergents, match heads, charcoal briquettes.

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: Corn is useful when you want something to stick.  You make glue with corn.  It is also useful when you don't ... when you want something not to stick, so molds use it to prevent it from sticking.  You know, you dust candies with it to prevent them from being sticky.  You add it to instant coffee to help it pour.  It ... you know, it ... it does everything.  It sticks, it doesn't stick, it's thick, it holds, it ... it lasts.  It's the dream stuff.

BURT WOLF: During the early 1800s, a Russian chemist name G. S. C. Kirchoff, accidentally over- heated some corn starch and invented corn syrup. Sweet, easily available and inexpensive, corn syrup began to replace sugar. The power of sweetness which had belonged almost exclusively to cane sugar was suddenly being shared. Today, corn syrup is used in more products than sugar — from soda to ketchup, corn syrup is the source of our sweet life.

MARGARET VISSER ON CAMERA: Everywhere you look you have corn.  You ... you're not aware of it, but underneath it all, it's a driving wheel of the entire American economy. Now, Americans could have used something else for their starch, turning starch into modern technological uses of starch. But in fact, they turned to corn, because they had corn.  Therefore, corn becomes essential to modern technological societies all over the world. This technological revolution that took place enabled America to be way out ahead. It gave them a fantastic advantage.

BURT WOLF: In the 1700s, Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote that “Whoever could make two ears of corn grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service than the whole race of politicians put together.”

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What would Swift have thought about the scientists who gave us American corn? In four months a single grain can multiply itself eight hundred times. It’s easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to harvest and easy to sell.   For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.