As we approach Harvest Moon this weekend, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the country’s biggest crops: corn. Local author and food historian Cynthia Clampitt has done just that in her remarkable new book, Midwest Maize.
Those of us who live here—and anyone who has ever driven south of I-80—will know how prevalent corn is in Illinois and across the Midwest. But chances are that few of us have thought much about corn as we pass row after row after row, aside from, perhaps, entertaining the cliché “knee high by the 4th of July.” Clampitt, however, has delved much deeper in this thoroughly researched history of the crop that all but turned the Midwest into America’s Heartland.
An exhaustive history, Midwest Maize traces the origins of the crop, the only indigenous cereal grain in North America. From its ancient uses among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to its role among early settlers in the original colonies to its role in shaping the United States, Clampitt leaves no kernel unturned as she explores corn and all its varieties, from field corn to sweet corn to popcorn and beyond. She digs into the sowing, hoeing, and harvesting of corn, shedding light into the history of husking bees that brought neighbors together and built communities. She looks into preserving and preparing corn (the book even includes recipes), and she examines the various products that come from corn, from whiskey to corn starch to myriad breakfast cereals to ethanol and biodiesel. And, she examines the inventions surrounding corn that helped build the Midwest, including John Deere’s tractors, which today are used around the world.
Clampitt demonstrates that corn and all its derivatives shaped the Midwest and the United States not only by providing a crop that today we likely could not live without but by prompting developments sparked by corn. She argues that corn has direct ties to the development of Chicago, where farmers would bring their harvests, first on roads, then via the I&M canal, then via railroads. She explains that Chicago’s Union Stockyards grew in large part to the readily available crops of feed corn that led to massive growth in the population of cattle and hogs. Although other crops might possibly have filled the void had corn not been so prevalent, one is left to wonder whether Chicago would be what it is today had not corn led to such expansive growth.
Midwest Maize is a truly remarkable history, illustrating an ongoing domino effect produced by a crop that many of us think little about. It’s a fascinating look at something that most of us rarely consider beyond whether we’ll grill or boil corn on the cob for summer cookouts or whether we’ll use canned corn or frozen corn in that Thanksgiving casserole. Corn, though, as Clampitt ably demonstrates, has tremendous reach, a crop that today has become all but indispensable.
Beyond the history of corn and how it shaped the heartland, Clampitt also touches on some of the more controversial aspects surrounding the subject, including traditional vs organic vs sustainable farming as well as the problem of food waste, concerns surrounding using feed corn to fatten up livestock, and the diminishing numbers of farmers at a time when food scarcity and food security are such important issues around the world.
Packed with interesting details, Midwest Maize is an informative read, and one that might well be of interest to fans of Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Fascinating overall, the tale at times gets bogged down in minutiae, but Clampitt’s research and reportage sustains the book, providing readers with a unique look at an adaptable plant that does so much for so many, providing not only food but myriad other resources that most of us take for granted.
March 2015, University of Illinois Press
$19.95, paperback, 288 pages
“And pray what more can a reasonable man desire,
in peaceful times, than a sufficient number of ears of
green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?”
—Henry David Thoreau
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen