Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Midwest Maize

Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Midwest Maize
    Book Description:

    Food historian Cynthia Clampitt pens the epic story of what happened when Mesoamerican farmers bred a nondescript grass into a staff of life so prolific, so protean, that it represents nothing less than one of humankind's greatest achievements. Blending history with expert reportage, she traces the disparate threads that have woven corn into the fabric of our diet, politics, economy, science, and cuisine. At the same time she explores its future as a source of energy and the foundation of seemingly limitless green technologies. The result is a bourbon-to-biofuels portrait of the astonishing plant that sustains the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09687-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-4)

    It would be hard to overstate the importance of corn to the United States. Or, to be more accurate, it would be hard to overstate the importance of maize.

    The termcornactually means “the most important cereal crop of a region.”¹ Hence, wheat was traditionally the corn of England, oats were the corn of Ireland and Scotland, rye was the corn of northern Germany, and in South Africa, the grain known as Bantu corn is millet. When English-speaking settlers reached the New World, they called the grain grown by Native Americans “Indian corn.” Which explains why, even though no...

    (pp. 5-16)

    Maize is a grass, like other cereal grains. However, it has a far larger seed head than any other cereal grain. That was one of the things that caught Columbus’s attention when he first saw piles of maize in the Caribbean.¹ However, though maize was new to him, it was already ancient in the Americas.

    Archaeologists and anthropologists have long argued over the precise point of origin of maize, though all have agreed for some time that it was in a relatively small area of Mexico or Central America. They have also long argued over which plant or plants might...

  6. 2 OUT OF ONE, MANY: The Unity and Diversity of Corn
    (pp. 17-25)

    When speaking of corn, for most Americans, the first thing that comes to mind will almost certainly be sweet corn, perhaps followed by popcorn. This response may be different for those who rely on, grow, or study the other types of corn, but say “corn” in most nonfarm locations in the United States, and people generally say something along the lines of, “It’s my favorite vegetable” or “I love corn on the cob.” However, there is a lot more to the corn story than sweet corn.

    There is, in fact, a tremendous amount of diversity in the world of corn....

    (pp. 26-34)

    Cather’s enthusiasm was definitely not misplaced. The Midwest, including the Great Plains of Cather’s childhood, is ideally suited for growing corn. Other regions grow corn, but nowhere else comes close to matching the Heartland. The top ten corn-producing states are all in the Midwest.¹ Iowa and Illinois alone produce more than one-third of the U.S. corn crop.² However, the entire region has a strong corn orientation—an orientation that extends beyond the simply agricultural. It has become woven into the culture and identity of the region. Iconically midwestern poet Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for his poetry...

    (pp. 35-48)

    Although the story of the Midwest is primarily a tale of farms spreading toward the horizon, two other elements were absolutely essential to the growth and sustaining of the Midwest. People did not make the difficult decision to leave their homes, and then make the difficult journey to the new territories, in order to simply subsist. As Jamestown’s John Smith had envisioned more than two hundred years earlier, this was a land where ordinary people—the commoners of aristocratic Europe—could own land and work for themselves. He wrote that the promise of America, in its abundance of land, was...

    (pp. 49-74)

    It is almost unimaginable how much farming has changed in the last 150 years. In the early 1800s, farming practices were not dramatically different from those of four thousand years earlier.¹ Though some advances had been made in the late 1600s by English agronomist and inventor Jethro Tull (most importantly, a horse-drawn seed drill), the images from ancient Egyptian tombs of farmers walking behind oxen pulling wooden plows look almost identical to images of farming practices in the Midwest in the early to mid-1800s—when oxen were still pulling wooden plows, albeit with some minor modifications to the plows.


    (pp. 75-91)

    While tons of corn were being shipped to the big cities, a lot of it never left the farm. Much of what stayed behind went to feed farm animals, which will be discussed in the next chapter, but a lot of it was also destined for the tables of the people who grew it. Corn appeared at almost every meal, and in some instances, itwasthe meal.

    Part of this culinary dependence was because of the abundance of corn, but more was because of the relative ease of harvesting and preparing corn, at least on the scale of family...

    (pp. 92-110)

    While there are numerous ways to prepare and enjoy corn, the vast majority of corn grown in this country is actually not consumed by humans—or, to be more precise, it is not directly consumed by humans. Most of the corn crop in the United States goes to feed livestock, especially large livestock (pigs and cows) and poultry.

    No other plant is better at capturing and storing the sun’s energy than corn,¹ and as a result, no other plant is as good at supplying the calories needed to fatten animals or enable them to produce milk or eggs. Corn is,...

  12. 8 POPCORN: America’s Snack
    (pp. 111-122)

    “Try the new taste sensation! Free! Popcorn popped in butter—a revolutionary new method just patented! Try a bag for free!” So cried Charles “C. C.” Cretors, inventor of the popcorn machine, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.¹ This was not the first time Americans had had popcorn, but it might be said that this was the beginning of the modern age of popcorn.

    Popcorn, though the oldest race of corn, is a relative newcomer to most of North America. While it was grown as a novelty in a substantial number of American gardens by the mid-1800s, there really...

    (pp. 123-134)

    Hogs were long considered a great way to “transform” corn into a marketable commodity. However, it was not the only transformation the grain was destined to undergo. These transformations have, in many cases, had a surprisingly great impact. Most people have heard that transformed corn is everywhere today, but some transformations date back to early colonial days. Alcohol, corn oil, cornstarch, corn syrup, snack foods, breakfast cereals, and an array of other corn-based products have been emerging over much of the country’s history. The ease with which corn is altered is just one more reason corn shaped our lives and...

    (pp. 135-158)

    Perhaps it is because the United States is a nation of immigrants and pioneers, but there is something in the American spirit that has tended toward exploration and innovation. And perhaps the immense openness of the prairies and plains made it natural that big ideas and big changes would be at home in the Heartland. Never before in the history of the world had so much changed so fast—and in the Midwest, a lot of that change was in some way related to corn. Trains, cities, stockyards, grain elevators, disassembly lines, crops becoming commodities, new machines and technologies, all...

    (pp. 159-172)

    Most things central to people’s lives, from family birthdays to the Fourth of July, are happily celebrated. Corn is no exception. Corn festivals, corn mazes, and corn-eating contests dot the American landscape, but, not too surprisingly, they are most abundant in the Midwest. From corn palaces to sweet corn and popcorn festivals to giant corn monuments, people have, throughout the region’s history, found ways to show their enthusiasm and gratitude for corn. However, ceremonies and festivities related to corn stretch back a long way.

    Almost as ancient as growing and eating corn is the celebration of corn. Native Americans of...

  16. 12 LIVING WITH CORN Early 1800s to Early 1900s
    (pp. 173-186)

    In the early 1900s, students in Illinois would have memorized those lines from Governor Oglesby’s speech.¹ People understood what had built the region, shaped society, and created the world in which they lived. It was corn, and they were connected to and dependent on the corn. All midwesterners were. The Midwest had shaken off its frontier origins and become civilized, a juxtaposing of city and country that benefited both. And yet it hadn’t been that many decades prior to Oglesby’s speech that the development of this new region had begun.

    The settlement of the Midwest came in fits and spurts,...

  17. 13 LIVING WITH CORN: Early 1900s to Present
    (pp. 187-203)

    One reads often these days about huge, corporation-owned industrial farms, and while those do exist, they are actually a remarkably small part of the corn story. In fact, the vast majority of corn is grown on family farms. According to the 2012 Corn Fact Book, produced by the Corn Farmers Coalition, 90 percent of all corn grown in the United States is produced on family farms. Many of the more than 400,000 U.S. farms that grow corn¹ have been in those families for generations.

    As one travels around the Midwest today, one finds that those families have deep roots and...

  18. 14 EATING CORN: Recipes and Histories
    (pp. 204-223)

    From the days of the first settlers right up through the beginning of the twentieth century, for most Americans in rural areas, every meal included corn. Cornmeal mush would likely appear at breakfast. Corn soup or cornbread, and possibly both, might accompany the midday dinner. At supper, corn pudding could be served—or corn on the cob during the summer. Corndodgers would often be carried along in a pocket or saddlebag, to keep one’s energy up in the fields or on the road. As cities grew and farms became more successful, other grains became more readily available, especially wheat. This,...

    (pp. 224-237)

    The population of the planet is 7 billion and growing. One of the most urgent issues facing the world today is how to feed 7 billion people. People worldwide do a surprisingly good job, considering how quickly the population jumped to this huge number—and yet there are still millions who are hungry.¹ How can more and more people be fed? And is it possible to do it and still retain ideals of food quality? That is the key issue: the world needs to produce more, but the means of producing more raises other issues. (And in some areas, it’s...

    (pp. 238-240)
  21. NOTES
    (pp. 241-266)
    (pp. 267-274)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 275-288)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-292)