Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Much Depends On Dinner

The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal

by Margaret Visser

“Fascinating . . . Margaret Visser is a gifted informal writer, and these chapters combine a wealth of unusual information with extreme readability. . . . In short, Visser whetted my appetite, and I am hungry for more.” —USA Today

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date June 29, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4493-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

A staple of the food-writing genre that prefigured the current locavore and foodist movements by almost two decades, Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner is a delightful and intelligent history of the food we eat, and a cornucopia of incredible details about the ways we do it.

Presented as a meal, each chapter of Much Depends on Dinner represents a different course or garnish, which Margaret Visser handpicks from the most ordinary American dinner: corn on the cob with butter and salt, roast chicken with rice, salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and ice cream. Visser tells the story behind each of these foods and in the course of her inquiries reveals some unexpected treats: the history of Corn Flakes; the secret behind the more dissatisfactory California olives (they’re picked green, chemically blackened, and sterilized); and the fact that, in Africa, citrus fruits are eaten whole, rind and all.

For food lovers of all kinds, this intelligent and unexpectedly funny book is a treasure of information that sheds light on one of our favorite pastimes: eating.

Tags History


“A consistently thoughtful and entertaining book.” —The New York Times

“A treasure trove of dinner-table conversation and an enlightening contribution to the study of food and culture.” —Booklist

“This fascinating, erudite, culinary anthropological study turns the mundane on its ear as it unearths gems of knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly

“Visser’s book, a storehouse—chock full and brimming—of fascinating information, is presented in cannon blast style.” —Los Angeles Times

“Fascinating . . . Margaret Visser is a gifted informal writer, and these chapters combine a wealth of unusual information with extreme readability. . . . In short, Visser whetted my appetite, and I am hungry for more.” —USA Today


Selected as one of Time Out‘s 1,000 Books to Change Your Life


Chapter One
Corn: Our Mother, Our Life

A North American supermarket is market place, temple, palace, and parade all rolled into one. It is both the expression and the symbol of the goals and the means of North American civilization, physically embodying the culture’s yearnings for size, availability, freedom of choice, uniformity, variety, abundance, convenience, cleanliness, speed, and the reduction of hierarchy to quantity: money and amount. It both tempts and constrains us: lets us loose inside but controls and defines us even as it exacts its toll at the exit. Buying a bag full of groceries at a North American supermarket is as essential for a traveller attempting to understand this culture as taking an evening stroll would be in Spain or Italy, or eating in a popular restaurant in France.

The driving wheel of the supermarket is not always visible: it is not the business of a driving wheel to be ostentatious. But it is there-everywhere. It is American corn, or maize.

You cannot buy anything at all in a North American supermarket which has been untouched by corn, with the occasional and single exception of fresh fish—and even that has almost certainly been delivered to the store in cartons or wrappings which are partially created out of corn. Meat is largely corn. So is milk: American livestock and poultry is fed and fattened on corn and cornstalks. Frozen meat and fish has a light corn starch coating on it to prevent excessive drying. The brown and golden colouring which constitutes the visual appeal of many soft drinks and puddings comes from corn. All canned foods are bathed in liquid containing corn. Every carton, every wrapping, every plastic container depends on corn products—indeed all modern paper and cardboard, with the exception of newspaper and tissue, is coated in corn.

One primary product of the maize plant is corn oil, which is not only a cooking fat but is important in margarine (butter, remember, is also corn). Corn oil is an essential ingredient in soap, in insecticides (all vegetables and fruits in a supermarket have been treated with insecticides), and of course in such factory-made products as mayonnaise and salad dressings. The taste-bud sensitizer, monosodium glutamate or MSG, is commonly made of corn protein.

Corn syrup—viscous, cheap, not too sweet—is the very basis of candy, ketchup, and commercial ice cream. It is used in processed meats, condensed milk, soft drinks, many modern beers, gin, and vodka. It even goes into the purple marks stamped on meat and other foods. Corn syrup provides body where “body” is lacking, in sauces and soups for instance (the trade says it adds “mouth-feel”). It prevents crystallization and discolouring; it makes foods hold their shape, prevents ingredients from separating, and stabilizes moisture content. It is extremely useful when long shelf-life is the goal.

Corn starch is to be found in baby foods, jams, pickles, vinegar, yeast. It serves as a carrier for the bubbling agents in baking powder; is mixed in with table salt, sugar (especially icing sugar), and many instant coffees in order to promote easy pouring. It is essential in anything dehydrated, such as milk (already corn, of course) or instant potato flakes. Corn starch is white, odourless, tasteless, and easily moulded. It is the invisible coating and the universal neutral carrier for the active ingredients in thousands of products, from headache tablets, toothpastes, and cosmetics to detergents, dog food, match heads, and charcoal briquettes.

All textiles, all leathers are covered in corn. Corn is used when making things stick (adhesives all contain corn)—and also whenever it is necessary that things should not stick: candy is dusted or coated with corn, all kinds of metal and plastic moulds use corn. North Americans eat only one-tenth of the corn their countries produce, but that tenth amounts to one and a third kilograms (3 lb.) of corn-in milk, poultry, cheese, meat, butter, and the rest—per person per day.

The supermarket does not by any means represent all the uses of corn in our culture. If you live in North America—and even very possibly if you do not—the house you live in and the furniture in it, the car you drive, even the road you drive on, all depend for their very existence on corn. Modern corn production “grew up” with the industrial and technological revolutions, and the makers of those revolutions were often North Americans. They turned their problem-solving attention to the most readily available raw materials and made whatever they wanted to make—antibiotics or deep-drilling oil-well mud or ceramic spark-plug insulators or embalming fluids—out of the material to hand. And that material was the hardy and obliging fruit of the grass which the Indians called maïs.

In English, the word corn denotes the staple grain of a country. Wheat is “corn” to the people of a country where wheaten bread is the staple. Oats is “corn” to people who eat oats; rye is “corn” if the staple is rye. When Europeans arrived in America they saw that, for the Indians, maize was the basic food, so the English-speaking newcomers called it “Indian corn.” We continue in North America to recognize the primacy of maize in our culture by calling it “corn.” In Europe it is called by some form of the Indian word “maïs” and it is differentiated from wheat, England’s “corn,” by being called in England “corn on the cob.” The word maize, in American usage, refers to the plant as it was when the Indians grew it, before the white men arrived in America-or it is used as a generic, more “botanical” term. American Indians, in their many different languages, always spoke of corn as “Our Mother,” “Our Life,” “She Who Sustains Us.”

The Indians are said—by themselves and by the first outsiders who encountered them—to have lived and died by corn. They measured out their lives by it, used it to build shelters and fences, spent more of their working days at producing it than at any other pursuit, wore it and decorated their bodies with it, ate it as their most substantial food, reverenced it, and offered it to the gods. Mais was omnipresent for them—and now it is every bit as omnipresent in North American life. Without corn, North America—and most particularly modern, technological North America—is inconceivable. Perhaps the relentlessly common-sensical, practical, handy American temperament would have created its lifestyle out of something else if corn had not existed: out of rice perhaps, or potatoes, or even from some other totally unpro-moted and therefore “uninteresting” plant. But corn was there, and so corn both founded and spearheaded the triumphant expansion of modern technology. By the same token, the very golden grains which constitute the riches of North America contain within themselves one of the acutest dangers we face: a peril diabolically wedded to our weakness.

How the Corn Plan Works

Maize is a giant grass which bears unusually large seed, even for a giant. Each corn kernel is really a fruit with an oily germ or seed surrounded by its starchy nutrients and enclosed in a skin or hull. The plant is, in fact, a genus all to itself and is the only species in its genus. Its botanical name is Zea maïs: zeia means “grain” in Greek, and the Haitian Indian term maïs may be translated as “the stuff of life.”

The Indians observed that different types of corn could cross and produce offspring with characteristics derived from both parents. They believed that the plants’ roots mingled underground to produce this effect, and this theory was not proved wrong until 1724, when Judge Paul Dudley of Massachusetts noticed that changes took place in corn when different types were separated by a river, but not when they were separated by a high fence. The “crossing” must therefore take place in the air and not underground. In 1694 the German botanist Camerarius had first startled the world with the news that plants have a sex-life. But James Logan, who worked as an administrator for the Province of Pennsylvania under William Penn, presented in 1727 the first theories about how sex worked in the corn plant. The silks, which hang like bunches of hair from the cobs, are the female element. The male maize flowers are borne on the tassel, and they produce the pollen, 25 million grains per tassel. When the pollen is ripe it is shed and drifts in the wind over the cornfield.

Each time a pollen grain falls on the sticky thread of a corn silk, either on its own plant or on another, a kernel is conceived. The silk develops a tube, and the pollen grain travels through the tube to the embryo at the root of the silk in the cob. There the baby corn kernel takes shape, tightly anchored by a short stem to its place amongst its rows of siblings. Every pollen grain contains two nuclei—one for the oil-germ and one for the starch-endosperm in the kernel. The corn plant adjusts the length of its own cobs according to the likelihood of the amount of grain it will be called upon to house. The factors which the plant mysteriously takes into account include the density of the plant population in a field, weed competition, moisture, the amount of nutrients it is getting, and the availability of light.

The corn cob, together with its progeny, plumps and ripens, and as it does so the silks change colour, from pale greenish white to deep red to brown, so that an expert picker knows just what stage the kernels have reached by the colour of the silks. When the kernels are fully ripe the silks turn into a stiff black fuzz. Corn can be picked and used or eaten at many different stages, and is often preferred when immature. This adds inestimable value to the plant, as long as modern machinery does not dominate the harvest, for it means that the fruit of a single sowing of corn plants can be used over a long period, some ears first as a tender boiled vegetable, some later for roasting, then some for grinding, and some later still as hard feed-grain for animals.

When sweet corn is picked for boiling, it must be rushed at once to the pot; purists claim that you should have the water ready boiling before you go out to pick your corn, so that there will be the least delay possible before the heat seizes the sugar in the kernels. The sweetness of sweet corn begins to turn to starch and lose its flavour the moment the cob is snapped from its stalk. Thus sweet corn bought several days old in a shop falls enormously short of its potential flavour. For once the frozen product, if it has been processed correctly, may be gastronomically preferable: modern freezing installations are built as close as possible to the field. The corn is picked, husked, and stripped of its kernels in the field, and should be rushed to the freezer, where the natural process which substitutes starch for sugar is instantly shut off.

The main varieties of maize are popcorn, sweet corn, dent corn, flint corn, and flour corn. Popcorn and flint corn have very hard hulls. When popcorn is heated, the starch inside the skin of the kernel fills with steam until it bursts: steam leaks out of the skins of other types of corn because their hulls are less horny. Popcorn’s beautiful cloud and butterfly shapes were greatly prized by the Indians who used them for necklaces and ornaments, just as we string them to decorate Christmas trees today. Many scientists believe that the accidental popping of hard grain in a fire might have first revealed to man the edibility of cereals.

Flint corn, especially Tropical Flint, dominated world markets until the 1920s: flint corn is hardy and resistant to tropical insects, long-lasting and delicious even when eaten daily: the Indians generally liked it best of all types, and most Africans still do. Flour corn is grown little outside of South and Central America, where it is still prized for the ease with which it may be ground by hand. The corn-grinding metate stone and the hand-held stone called a mano are common sights all over South America, where they are most often placed outside houses, so that the women can work at corn grinding while chatting with their neighbours.

The giant crop among corns all over the world today is dent. It is named after the dimple in the top edge of every kernel, which is formed because of the shrinkage of the soft starch in the endosperm. Dent corn is sweet and starchy—the most prized characteristics for the uses of our civilization. It used to be thought of by the Indians as one of the prime symbols of the female, and it proclaimed the maternal aspects of the divine corn plant.

Sweet corn—the type which we are having to open our meal—must be cooked or frozen immediately. With the exception of this one variety, however, corn which has been successfully dried and correctly stored is one of the longest-lasting foodstuffs known. Ten-year-old corn kernels will germinate. Archaeologists endlessly search for the origins and the time-scale for the development of corn; at one dig made in the pursuit of more knowledge about the history of corn, thousand-year-old corn kernels were uncovered. A donkey happened on the find, and thought it appetizing enough to eat. It has also been found that one-thousand-year-old popcorn can still be successfully popped.

One of corn’s main attractions for man has always been its adaptability to storage: corn is the ultimate “long shelf-life” food. Many North American Indian bands kept stocks of kernels under earth-mounds for the winters and times of war, and these fed the earliest European settlers who came upon such hoards during their first cruel winter in 1620-21. It is still customary in Zambia and other maize-growing countries in Africa to save dried corn-kernels underground in covered pits. And as I have mentioned, today corn is the precious material by which modern technology keeps a myriad of other products edible through thousands of miles of travel and months, even years, of storage before they are bought.

The corn cob and its seed is covered entirely with a durable husk. This is another convenience for man: the green envelope makes the cob easy to harvest, easy to feed to livestock, easy to transport, easy to store. It protects the grain from damage during mechanical harvesting. The corn cob is the original packaged food—again apparently made to suit modern demands.

All this is so miraculous that there has got to be a hitch—and there is. Corn, because of its tight, strong, all-enveloping husk, cannot seed itself. Even if a cob fell to the ground freed from its husk, the resulting seedlings would choke each other because they are so closely set, and so tightly bound to the cob. In fact, if man ceased to take a hand by unwrapping the cob, plucking the seed, and planting it out, Zea maïs would become extinct.

Man depends on the corn he has helped to create, but the corn also depends on him. It depends on him for its nutrients; corn is one of the most demanding of food plants in this respect. Corn needs a great deal of water: 370 kilograms of water for each kilogram of dry fodder; 537 litres of water per litre of grain harvested and stripped from the cobs. (That is 4,300 Imperial gallons of water per bushel of grain for those of us whose minds still function in Imperial measurements.) It takes five to twelve years for soil which has once borne maize to return to its former fertility by natural means. When corn is repeatedly sown on one spot, the land has to be artificially fertilized, and this means enormous expenditures of energy and money for the machines, the nutrient chemicals, and their transport. The added fertilizers mean that modern farmers need not leave the land to recover, and can do without rotation of crops. But the fertilizers encourage weeds as well as corn, so that weed-killers have to be assiduously applied.

In a healthy, weed-cleared, and fertilized cornfield, the plants grow extremely quickly. Growth slows down during the day and speeds up in the evening. Under ideal conditions a day’s growth can reach eleven and a half centimeters (4″ inches). There are hundreds of accounts of American farmers who say they have heard their corn growing. On a warm windless evening during the peak growing time you can sit in a cornfield and hear the earth and the vegetable kingdom at work: a gentle stroke and rasp of leaves unfurling and sweeping along stalk and leaf edge: the hum of the driving wheel of North American civilization.

The Origins of Corn

More is known about corn, its demands and its enemies, how it propagates itself and how it grows, than about any other plant on earth. Yet the importance of this vegetable is so enormous that research into corn is being pursued more intensely today than ever. Corn is now known to have originated in Central America. But one great mystery remains: what did the American Indians do to produce corn in the first place? Nothing like this man-sized plant with its huge cobs and succulent kernels exists in uncultivated nature.

In 1953, the earliest known fossil corn pollen was discovered as foundation cores were being drilled for a skyscraper in Mexico City; it was buried deep in what had been the muddy bottom of a lake. There was a great deal of corn pollen in the silt down to a seven-metre (23-ft.) depth, then nothing for sixty-two metres more. At sixty-nine metres, (226 ft.) corn pollen reappeared. It dates from the last interglacial period, and its age is estimated at about eighty thousand years. The corn-like plant which bred this pollen must have been a wild grass with kernels which could fall separately to the ground so that the plant could reseed itself and so survive without the human intervention necessary in corn as we now know it.

One grass which looks as if it could conceivably have developed into corn, and which still exists in the wild because each of its kernels is enclosed in its own hard self-sufficient shell, is teosinte. Teosinte and corn, however, have crucial genetic dissimilarities. In 1978 a botany student called Rafael Guzmán found in the Mexican Jalisco Hills a hitherto unknown type of teosinte grass which could easily crossbreed with corn; the discovery was described as the most important botanical breakthrough of the 1970s. This obliging plant has provided corn not only with what most scientists now think of as a bona fide ancestor, the secrets of whose genetic makeup might unlock even more riches from the corn plant, but it has also been made by careful crossbreeding to share with corn its resistance to many diseases and pests. Yet we still do not know what the Indians did to turn the self-seeding teosinte grass, with its small self-contained grains, into a plant with huge podless kernels growing in tight rows on a cob covered with a single sheath.

An archaeological dig at Bat Cave, New Mexico, in the 1940s uncovered seven hundred corn cobs and some tassel fragments, the oldest of which have been dated to fifty-six hundred years ago. These are modern, “man-influenced” corn cobs all right—except for one fact. The cobs (not the kernels, but the cobs) are no longer than a human fingernail. How we do not know, but by the next identifiable stage, three thousand years ago at the latest, the corn cob, presumably because of intervention by Indian farmers, had increased in size to ten centimeters (4 in.) long. At the Coxcatlan cave in the Tehuacán Valley, Mexico, a clear sequence of corn cobs has been found, increasing in length from one to twenty centimeters (1/2 in. to 8 in.) over a span of fifty-five hundred years.

Mexico appears by most accounts to be the heartland, or at least the most fruitful “mixing bowl” for the evolution of corn. But this theory has also been challenged. In 1961 digs were being carried out in Ecuador, on sites which had been inhabited by the Valdivia cultures between about 4000 and 2000 BC. Amongst a heap of pot-sherds left behind by tomb-robbers, archaeologists found pieces of pottery which had been decorated by pressing maize kernels repeatedly into the wet clay in order to produce ornamental designs. One sherd actually had a corn kernel still imbedded in it. The kernel was charred, but its outlines are still clear enough to identify it. Two facts about what is now known as the San Pablo Corn Kernel caused a real shock: the pot-sherd can be securely dated to 2920 BC, and the kernel is the size of a modern one!

If there have been no mistakes made, this find disrupts the whole picture derived from the Bat Cave and other discoveries, in which large kernels do not arrive for at least another thousand years.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in America he immediately noted American corn and its immense importance for the Indians. On November 4, 1492, Columbus disembarked on the island now called Cuba. He was met by Indians who hospitably offered gifts, the most sacred and prodigious substances they knew: tobacco and corn. The word they used for the latter, in the Haitian language spoken on the island, was maïs. In this manner, and on a single day, these two fateful plants were introduced to Europe and the rest of the world. Columbus’s journal for November 5, 1492, reads in an early translation: “There was a great deal of tilled land sowed with a sort of beans and a sort of grain they call ‘mahiz,’ which was well tasted baked or dried, and made into flour.”

Over and over again the letters and narratives of the early explorers of America express amazement at the cleanliness, the diligence, and efficiency of Indian farming. In Europe at this time (the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) seed was sown broadcast, that is in great scattered handfuls, irregularly spaced by the chance fall of the grains. Farmers then waited for the weeds to come up with the crop before any attempt was made to sort through the jumble of growing plants and remove the unwanted growth. The Indians did things differently. Round many of the settlements on the eastern seaboard, fields were laid out with chequerboard accuracy, a mound of earth heaped up in every square. There were no draft animals in North America before the Europeans came; all land-clearance and mound-making was done by hand, with the help of axes and sticks, and with hoes whose blades and points were made of wood, sea-shells, antlers, and the shoulder-blades of large animals.

The women then moved onto the prepared land. They did all the agricultural labour thereafter, up until the harvest, which in some tribes was allotted and stored in quantities decided by the women. At planting time they poked holes into the mounds, and dropped seeds into them: four or six of maize, and, a little while later, a few of beans, a few of squash. Corn, beans, and squash were always eaten together and always planted together: in Iroquois myth they were represented as three inseparable sisters. When the plants emerged from the hill, the corn grew straight and strong, the beans climbed the corn, and the squash plant trailed down the side of the hill and covered the flat land between the mounds. The spreading squash plant helped to keep down weeds. The coastal Indians would plant a fish in every hill as well; to neglect this was sacrilege, and the corn repaid such a sin by refusing to grow properly. The Indians—who can imagine how?—had discovered that maize needs massive doses of fertilizer if it is not completely to drain the soil of nutrients.

Planting was sacred and performed in association with vehement dancing for fertility. In many tribes the women would shake their long hair to encourage the magically similar corn silks to flourish. In Central America, Aztec ceremonies at corn planting included human sacrifice, serpentine dances, skirmishes among priestesses, and a rattle-strewing rite, where the rattle imitated the seed tumbling into the earth. The Green Corn Dance of the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States is a survival of ancient customs such as these, and is still performed today.

The right moment for planting was always a matter for extreme caution and meticulous science. “When the young leaves of the oak tree are the size of a squirrel’s ear, then plant,” the early European settlers were told by the Indians, on whom they depended for any hope of survival. In Guatemala today the descendants of the ancient Maya continue to grow corn by the methods of their ancestors and still there is the anxious scanning of wind and leaf signs, the elaborate preparations and the intensely religious awareness of the right moment to place the seed in the earth. The ancient method for planting is still in favour in Guatemala: poke a hole in the ground with a stick, drop the kernel in, cover, and move on.

The Indian tribes who planted their seed in spaced hills zealously guarded the soil all round each hill from weeds. The first Europeans to see this marvelled at the revelation of this novel neatness, and at so much willing hard work. They were also staggered by the size of the maize plantations: Diego Columbus, Christopher’s brother, said he walked twenty-nine kilometers (eighteen miles) through an immaculate field of corn, bean, and squash mounds, and never came to the end of it. The Indians in South and Central America still like to grow beans up their cornstalks, and still they keep down weeds by growing pumpkins and squash between the stalks.

Corn, beans, and squash are as constantly wedded in Indian cooking today as they were in the past. Sometimes meat is added: for the early Indians that meat would often have been puppy. And always they added ash: burnt hickory or the ash of some other wood, or the roasted and crushed shells of mussels they had eaten, or (as in modern Ecuador) the burnt shells of land snails. All this was sheer tradition: corn, beans, and squash, with a pinch of ash in every pot. Only very recently have scientists fully grasped the wisdom of the Indians’ behaviour. Corn, we now know, is about 10 per cent protein, but is deficient in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which people must get from food. In addition, although corn contains the vitamin niacin, almost all of it occurs in a “bound” form called niacytin, which makes it biologically unavailable to human beings. Corn, in other words, cannot feed people adequately if it is not supplemented by other foods, and beans and squash are excellent complements to corn. The holy threesome, in fact, enabled corn to be consumed as a staple. Wherever the rule has been broken, and corn eaten without the correct supplements, the consequences have been disastrous: outbreaks of pellagra and kwashiorkor, the agonizing diseases of nutrition deficiency.

Pellagra (from the Italian pelle agra, “rough skin”) causes skin lesions, sore mouth, nausea, and eventually mental disturbances. It was common in the nineteenth century among the poor of the southern United States, who lived typically on a diet of corn in its many versions, gravy, collards, sweet potatoes, rice, and sugar. Joseph Goldberger proved in 1916 that pellagra was induced by the lack of niacin in this corn-centred diet; he was finally forced, in order to make his point, to perform several dramatic experiments on his own person and on those of his wife and friends, to demonstrate that the disease was not caught by infection. The remedy was simply a greater variety of vitamin-rich foods. Kwashiorkor is an African word meaning “the disease of the elder child when a new one is born.” It occurred when a child was weaned at the birth of a sibling: the disease set in when milk was withdrawn and a diet of corn substituted. Kwashiorkor, caused by deficiency in protein, niacin, and amino acids, is still the main cause of child mortality in many parts of the world.

What about the ash that American Indians added to their corn? They realized that ash (that is, lime or alkali) softens the skins of the corn kernels and makes these easier to grind and to digest. But there is more. Lime, when added to corn, releases the “bound” vitamin niacin, and makes it available to human beings. In fact, if the Indians had not somehow (How?) learned this secret, corn could never have become the main food crop of several civilizations, as it did in pre-Columbian America. The Indians sensed, too, that the ash was for man, to supply his bodily need: when they offered their sacred grain to the gods they never added ash.

The mythology of corn among the American Indians forms a vast and varied tapestry, a revelation of the rich intensity of man’s response to nature: his anxiety, his gratitude, his sense of wonder. Since Indian cultures were in many ways founded upon corn, beliefs about the grain express not only its own reign over men, but also much more specific and detailed aspects of human society and institutions. For example, the Indians commonly saw the world as having six directions: north, south, east, and west, and also up and down. Each of the directions was associated with one of the six main colours of corn. For many tribes (colour associations did vary from tribe to tribe) red was for the north, blue the east, black the south, yellow the west; white was for “up” and variegated corn was “down,” the underworld. The ancient Mayans of Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatán placed four corn kernels in each planting mound, one for each of the four Bacabs, the gods who hold up the sky at the four corners of the earth. The fifth day of the Mayan month was named for planting the maize; its pictograph was a ring quartered by a cross, and containing a small circle in each of the quarters: it was a depiction of a planted corn-mound. The first day of the month was Kan, which stood for maize; its pictograph was a stylized corn kernel.

Among the people ruled by the Incas of Peru, no corn could be planted before the supreme Inca himself had announced the spring by turning the earth with a golden plough. He was given a special maize drink concocted by the “chosen virgins” who slept with him alone. This rich fermented brew was used for sacrificial ceremonies and as a drink exclusively for the supreme Inca.

The people of ancient Peru learned ingenious methods of tapping subterranean water for their thirsty maize. They also sailed out to islands in the Pacific to gather guano, the droppings of sea-birds, which they transported to their nutrient-hungry corn on the backs of llamas. They added fertilization to the fields in the form of sardine-heads, one for every planted seed. They dried meat and roasted corn for the long journeys they made through their steep lands—and the Indians of Peru today travel the same routes, with the same provisions. Making their intoxicating maize beer called chicha necessitated chewing the kernels slightly first and spitting them out. Human saliva breaks down the starch and converts it into the maltose and glucose necessary to produce alcohol. Many pottery chicha vessels have survived, decorated with corn cobs, demon heads, and drunken leaning figures. Chicha is still a popular brew.

When the Aztecs of Central America performed human sacrifices the priest cut out the victim’s heart with a flint knife, and tossed the warm corpse over the side of the temple terrace. The heart was thought of as having been husked, like a corn cob from its sheath. The head was kept on a special skull rack until its flesh dropped off and only the skull remained, indistinguishable from numerous others like it. Most of the remainder of the body may have been eaten in the form of a “man-stew”—with maize. The Aztecs savagely punished any kind of theft; yet owners of maize fields were expected to allow the hungry travellers who passed by to help themselves to ears from any corn plants that bordered a route.

Corn, for the Indians throughout North, Central, and South America, was a tragic and sacred plant. Every society regards its staple food stuff in this way: man respects, admires, and may even adore his “stuff of life.” He feels sorrow and guilt because he must cut it down in order to live, and he feels joy and gratitude because the plant accepts death and agrees in time to return—if due respect is paid to custom and science—to feed its murderers again. A central myth of the Indians—told with a myriad variations but always essentially the same—may representatively be given in the version of the Ojibways from the region of Lake Superior.

The Ojibways once lived only by hunting and fishing; a hard and precarious life. There arose a young and religiously gifted man with the power of attaining shamanic visions, whose name was Wunzh. Wunzh knew the suffering of the hunter, for his father had no luck and therefore could not feed his family. Wunzh fasted and prayed in order to receive a spirit guide who would tell him what to do to end hunger. At last the spirit guide came: a young man dressed in yellow and green, with a head dress of green feathers. He demanded that Wunzh should wrestle with him, despite the Indian’s weakness from fasting. They wrestled until Wunzh was exhausted, and suddenly the spirit disappeared. Twice more he came, and twice more they fought. And then the visitant announced that the Great Spirit was pleased with Wunzh and would grant his prayer. Wunzh must wrestle again till he conquered the spirit and killed him. Then he must strip off his adversary’s clothes and throw his corpse down on the ground. This Wunzh did, and in sorrow left the broken body of the wrestler in the forest. When he returned later to the spot the body was gone, but Wunzh saw the tips of the warrior’s plumed headdress showing through the earth. Eventually it grew into a plant as tall as a man, and to this cruel but glorious event the Ojibway Indian owed his sustenance, his security, and joy.

Corn for the Indian was both One and Various. Its many colours—orange, white, blue, black, and the rest-seemed to him the many-faceted manifestation of the single and divine sap of maïs. There was a deep obligation to preserve its variety. The Hopi Indians allotted to each family in a village one type of corn, and it was that family’s responsibility to maintain the purity of that corn type through the generations. In other words, hybridization, the core of the modern development of corn, would have been anathema to the Indians: hybridization confuses categories, refuses priorities, and denies the aspect of Many to what was One.

An eighteenth-century Franciscan missionary wrote of the Mexican Indians among whom he worked: “Everything they did and said so concerned maize that they almost regarded it as a god. The enchantment and rapture with which they look upon their milpas (cornfields) is such that on their account they forget children, wife, and any other pleasures, as though the milpas were their final purpose in life and the source of their felicity.” Corn must never be wasted, for this was sacrilege: Mexican Indians still say that scattered corn which has not been picked up will complain to God about it. Corn was afraid of being cooked, so a woman must breathe on the corn before throwing it into the pot, to comfort it and accustom it to heat. After the birth of a child, corn cobs must not be burned lest the face of the child should be pitted and blackened like them. Hell, for the Natchez, was a barren waterlogged place where the wicked would cat the flesh of alligators and rotten fish, and where “they will not have any kind of corn.” Zuni Indians thought that corn sprinkled across a doorway should be sufficient to keep an enemy at bay: pathetically, they tried it when the Spaniards came—the people who had no respect for maize.

The Indians had no traction animals and no horses, raised no cattle and drank no milk. When the Europeans came the Indians immediately offered them their maize, as well as the other weird and wonderful vegetables and fruits of the New World, which were soon to change human eating habits the world over. The Europeans brought their great beasts over in ships—and proceeded to feed them on maize, an act which was sacrilege to the Indians, for maize was of the gods, and man alone among creatures could eat it.

The Spanish wasted no time in taking the new grain back to plant at home. American corn has been cultivated in the Iberian peninsula since the sixteenth century. The Indians had shown the Spaniards and Portuguese how corn must be dried before it can be safely stored, and how to safeguard it from predators while it dries. They built wooden platforms in their milpas, so constructed that rats and other creatures could not climb up to the grain cache on top. The Spanish version of the early corn cribs were the horreos in stone (they are called espigueiros in Portugal): wonderful simple structures raised on short fat columns, looking like illustrations from some exotic fairy-tale, and which still are commonly visible, with many regional variations, in Spain and Portugal.

Very soon after Columbus’s journey slaves were being brought from Africa to work the new American lands for European colonists from various countries. The British slave-trader Sebastian Cabot used the Indians’ maize to buy slaves from Africa: corn travelled well across the ocean, and it was eagerly received in exchange for men. Those slaves went out to America in the holds that had carried maize, and not a few of them worked corn plantations whose fruits bought more slaves. John Leo visited Africa as early as 1535, and two hundred miles inland on the Niger River he met a tribe who had “a great store of a round and white kind of pulse, the like whereof I never saw in Europe.” The Africans called it manputo, “Portuguese grain.” “This,” adds Leo, “is called maiz in the West Indies.”

The Portuguese island off the west coast of Africa, São Tomé, was busily importing maize from Equatorial Guinea and Gabon on the mainland in the early sixteenth century. Portuguese ships carried maize to Morocco, Burma, and China and round the coasts of the African continent; South Africans still call the ears of maize “mealies,” from the early Portuguese term, milho grosso. Holland spread the grain even further afield. The Turkish Empire caused American corn to spread over North Africa and into Hungary and Romania. The Turks themselves never liked maize much: they remained eaters of wheat. But it suited them to let their subject peoples take to maize, because it meant all the more wheat for themselves. For a long time in Europe there was confusion about where the deluge of new foodstuffs was coming from; for many it seemed that the exotic Turkish Empire must be responsible and that the produce came from the East or from Africa. The huge new American chickens were called “turkeys”; and maize was called Guinney wheat, Indian barley, or Turkie wheat in England, granturco in Italy, and “Turkish” grain in Germany and Holland.

The very early familiarity of North Africans with maize may have come about through the Moors, who could have carried it with them when many of them were expelled from Spain between 1499 and 1502. Some scholars suggest that Africa had maize much earlier still: the Arabs, who are known to have been navigating the Atlantic as early as 1100 AD, might have encountered it and brought it across the relatively short stretch of ocean from Brazil to Africa. The persistent belief of Europeans that maize came to them from Turkey, and of the Chinese that they received maize from the west (not by sea from the Portuguese as is still most commonly believed) might support the theory that maize spread to the Old World from the New before the journeys of Columbus. Names and dates are less than the tips of the icebergs of history; ideas and commodities can appear to travel faster than people—if the only people we consider are those for whom we have names and dates. After 1492, maize spread over the world with extraordinary alacrity. It was hardy; it travelled; it grew quickly; it provided plenty of food.

How Corn Is Eaten

The European settlers in North America survived their first winters because they listened to the Indians and learned fast. They brought wheat seed on the ships with them, and planted it—but owing to different weather and soil conditions or because of bad storage on board, the seed failed, and maize became the mainstay of their lives. They sowed it as the Indians taught them, planting a fish in every mound. On the eastern seaboard the fish were mainly alewives, the herring of the Atlantic which in those days teemed at spawning (and planting) time so copiously that a man had only to lace his fingers in the water and fish would swim into his hands. The Europeans also learned to keep their fields as neat as a “garden bedde” as the Indians did, “not suffering a choaking weede to advance his audacious head above their infant corne.” They were taught how much the maize needed water, and when and how to harvest at different times for different purposes.

Then came the cooking lessons. The meal which serves as the structural principle for this book begins with simple boiled immature cobs, buttered and salted. Sweet corn was relatively little prized among most American Indian tribes: sweetness can quickly pall in a food eaten as one’s chief sustenance. Boiled young sweet corn was an occasional treat among the bands that raised this particular variety; butter was unknown, and salt in many cases rare. Far more commonly eaten were the kinds of corn that lent themselves to roasting and to grinding into meal. Stoneground corn, as South Americans have traditionally made it and as modern “gourmet” cooks increasingly realize, is far more delicious than machine-ground, because the germ, complete with its fat and nutrients, is left in the grain.

One could have suppawn, a corn porridge lightened and slightly sweetened with crushed green corn stalks. Succotash was corn and beans stewed together. Hominy was flint corn boiled with ash so that the pericarp of the kernels could be washed away; after prolonged boiling the grain emerged greyish white with a smoky flavour. Cornmeal could be cooked on a stone or griddle as a flat cake which was handy to take on journeys, hence its English name, “jonnycake.” Hoecakes were baked in an oven, spread thinly on a greased iron hoe blade; the name in one Indian language for such a cake was a nookik: is it coincidence that this sounds very much like “an hoecake”?

Pone was an Algonquin word for corn cooked as a thin layer of batter on a heated stone, like the hoecake or “journey cake.” The method had also been common among the Aztecs, who rationed out corn to every person according to his age, in what was considered an appropriate number per day of thin flat cakes, each at least a foot in diameter. Maize could even be baked into something resembling bread—flat, dense, crumbly (corn lacks the gluten that enables wheaten flour to rise), but filling and delicious. The addition of buttermilk or clabber was a European invention: the Indians had not consumed animals’ milk. But the mixture was often cooked in the embers wrapped in husks, which was an Indian method. Spoon bread is more elaborate, a baked affair lightened with beaten eggwhites and puffy like a souffle. Grits are coarsely ground white cornmeal with the fine grains sifted out.

In Central and South America, wet hominy is squeezed and kneaded into a dough (masa) and fried or baked as tortillas or stuffed and fried as enchiladas. Masa ferments quickly in its wet state, so that today it is often dried and ground into flour which is sold as masa harina. Tamales have meat or vegetables inside, and are wrapped in corn husks and boiled or steamed. In South America corn is used to make all sorts of drinks as well as food: atole, pinolillo, chicheme, colada, and the chicha made from chewed corn. Peru prizes its purple corn, which gives colour and flavour to sweet dishes and drinks.

Maize is also precious in Africa—too precious to feed it, as North Americans do, to livestock; cattle in Africa may be given stalks to eat, or the hulls which have been removed from the kernels. The Yorubas of Nigeria eat corn as ogi, a mush which requires painstaking soaking, grinding, and washing for several days before it is boiled. The same preparation wrapped in banana leaves and cooked is agidi, an important dish in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast; a variant is kenkey, from Ghana. Often peanuts, red peppers, and palm oil are mixed with the corn; or it is simply cooked and dipped in relish. Corn needs supplementary foodstuffs to complete its nutrient value, and “dipping” is one obvious way to achieve this. The distinctively American habit of dipping food in sauces may well have developed in part from this manner of eating corn.

By the mid-eighteenth century the newcomers to North America had totally accepted Indian corn as their staple food. They had corn for breakfast, lunch, and supper. American soldiers captured in Canada in the War of 1812 and imprisoned at Halifax, Nova Scotia, expressed their deepest need—for the corn they were accustomed to eating daily. “Their cry for ‘mush and milk’ was incessant,” wrote the superintendant of the camp. “I soon placed before the poor sufferers the object of their longings.” North Americans did everything they could to induce Europeans to like corn. The dissemination of recipes for cooking the new vegetable was one of the most important means to this end.

Yet in Europe maize has had a chequered history. The Belgians have never accepted corn as part of their national cuisine, and neither have the Germans, the Scandinavians, or the Swiss. The French have always tended to turn up their noses at it, relegating corn to chickenfeed, cooking oil, and the plastics industry. In 1847 the starving Irish refused at first to eat stores of corn brought by the British from America. They called it “Peel’s brimstone” after the British prime minister and because it seemed to them to have a sinister colour, yellow like sulphur.

In about 1650, however, Italy suddenly embraced maize, adapting it to the production of the ancient Roman grain porridge, puls or pul-mentum, which was originally made of spelt, millet, or chick-pea flour. Today what the Italians now call polenta is popular in the north, cooked much as it is in Africa, and served with squid in its black ink, or tomato sauce. The great nineteenth-century novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, described steaming yellow polenta being poured out onto a wooden board as looking like “a harvest moon in a mist.” Byron had a beautiful Venetian mistress who used to float with him in a gondola down the Grand Canal, lazily nibbling bits of polenta from a ball of it which she kept warm down the front of her dress, between her breasts.

One of the most assiduously corn-eating nations in Europe is Romania. The Romanians took to the American plant largely because their Turkish overlords did not: they could keep all the maize crop themselves, while the Turks had access to more Romanian wheat. Maize was thrown as a fertility charm at weddings, much as rice is in other European and American countries. (Maize mixed with rice is still part of wedding rites in Spain.) The Romanians used it in popular medicine to cure colds, burns, and skin diseases. The Romanian poet Lucian Blaga recounts an intoxicating memory:

As a child I used to love to jumpnaked into the maize barrel, drowning up to my neck in golden grain. . . .

Corn Flakes

A useful cash crop in nineteenth-century America was a special kind of sorghum (Sorghum vulgare technicum), grown for the long bristles which sprout from its ears; bristles which created a minor household revolution amidst all the thunderous transformations of housekeeping which occurred in that century. Really efficient brooms were mass-manufactured out of this “broomcorn.” Their bristles were densely clustered and evenly trimmed, flexible, and strong.

Selling brooms was the first real employment of a teen-aged Seventh Day Adventist called Will Kellogg. Will’s father and mother had become Adventists after the death of their daughter through medical incompetence. When they heard of the medical theories of the Adventist leaders Elder White and Sister White of Battle Creek, Michigan, they sold their broomcorn farm in Connecticut and moved to Battle Creek, where they opened a broom factory.

Water cures were one of the Adventists’ healing methods: sponge baths, wrapping patients in wet sheets, sitz baths, foot baths, water-sprays, and plunges. Sister White was told in a vision to open hospitals where baths could be administered, and vegetarianism, proper rest, and exercise taught and practised. She opened a sanatorium in Battle Creek and ten years later Will Kellogg’s elder brother John Harvey Kellogg, who had prepared himself with a medical degree, took charge of the Battle Creek Sanatorium. The Doctor misspelled the word as “sanitarium,” but stuck to his error when it had been pointed out to him. “sanitarium,” he said, would find its way into dictionaries by the time he was through building up Battle Creek. He was right; it did.

Under John Harvey Kellogg the Sanitarium became one of the largest, richest, and most influential hospitals in the United States. John Harvey himself wrote and argued prolifically about his health philosophy, which he called “biologic living,” and about the roles of food, light, water, and exercise in the curing of disease. He wrote over fifty books and was celebrated throughout the United States as a surgeon and a kind of medical guru.

John Harvey was a demonic worker. Only one man could compete with him for sheer energy and concentration on work: his overshadowed, underpaid, unglamorous factotum and younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg. Will did all the organizing of the “san,” while his brother was the celebrity and figurehead. He followed wherever his elder brother led. One of these leads was into a series of experiments John Harvey set up in order to find a way of making bread more easily digestible. The Sanitarium had already invented a ground and toasted granular food called Granola.

John Harvey claimed that the idea of flaking wheat by compressing it came to him in a dream in 1894. The rollers already in use for making Granola were set to work to experiment with boiled wheat, and of course a lot of the dull trial-and-error operations which resulted from the flash of inspiration were handled by brother Will. One night the wheat had been left too long after boiling, but the brothers rolled it anyway, and found that each berry turned into an elongated thin flake. They baked the flakes, which turned crisp. It was Will who argued that the flakes—peculiar to look at as they were—should not be ground as Granola grain was ground, but left whole.

Wheat flakes began to be offered to the public, and to catch on, as a breakfast health food. Many companies formed to profit from the new fashion, in spite of the difficulty people had at first with the idea of cold food for breakfast. Three years after the first discovery of the flaking technique, Will began to experiment with corn instead of wheat. “Horse food,” the sceptics called it, and the first corn flakes were thick, flavourless and unpopular. But gradually they were improved, flavoured with malt, altered in texture and keeping qualities with chemical additives, thinned, and crisped until corn flakes as we know them were complete. The Kellogg “grain-tempering” process was patented in 1894.

Will Kellogg eventually broke with his brother and the Sanitarium and at last felt capable of striking out on his own. He was forty-six years old. He began to advertise as no one yet had advertised in American—or any other—business practice. He gave away samples of his revolutionary product. He discovered the importance of the package itself as advertising medium: the corn flakes girl, “Sweetheart of the Corn,” was dreamed up and then emblazoned on every box. She was an American reincarnation of the mother goddess, of youthfulness and sudden impulse, as with a brilliant smile she embraced a corn-shock. The Sweetheart delivered none of the minatory restrictions Will’s brother meted out with his health foods; she suggested health and wholesomeness and sound country living (all of them evangelically American values), but advised nothing and promised nothing except pleasure. Early Kellogg slogans included: “Wins its favor through its flavor!” “The breakfast treat that makes you eat!” and “America’s Waking Thought.” W.K. Kellogg had already discovered the two basic necessities in advertising: recognisability and continuous repetition. He used jingles, famous faces, his own personal signature as endorsement, and insistence that his corn flakes were “the original.” Children were perceived almost immediately as a powerful and susceptible means of access to their parents’ purses: children were pictured on packages and offered contests, cut-outs, free samples, and rewards for collecting cereal-box tops. Kellogg’s also supported corn shows, with prizes for the most uniform ears of maize, in the days before hybrid corn.

When the Depression struck, Will Kellogg surveyed the scenes of despair and catastrophe in the business world all about him. His response was not to cut back, but to redouble his advertising, actually embracing the Depression as his company’s biggest break. This was probably his greatest hour as a businessman. For, in fact, it was during the Depression that Americans permanently altered their breakfast habits. The heavy hot early meal became a relic of the past; the reason was partly a lack of money and time, and partly the alternative promulgated by Mr. Kellogg and his imitators and competitors.

From this point on the corn flake enters social history. Zea maïs, the divine life-sustainer of the pre-Columbian Indians, the humble underpinning of North American wealth, now enters a new phase of its ancient mythical life. Long ago North Americans had chosen yellow corn and white corn and rejected the rest: blue, black, red, orange, and multi-coloured maize had become so exotic as to be almost indecent—unless used for purely decorative purposes. White, for us, means “pure,” and food must look pure, always. Yellow is a little more problematical, but it does suggest sunshine. The xanthophylls present in yellow corn make the skin and legs of the poultry fed on it yellow, and yellow is considered more appetizing than white in a chicken: yellow means “golden,” and promises the succulence of roasts and fried meat. Kellogg’s and other corn flakes manufacturers work hard to achieve a golden flake. It must be toasted, but not too dark, or people will not eat it, no matter what its taste. Kellogg’s used to go out of its way to buy white corn in order to achieve just the colour the consumer wants. White corn is not grown much in the Battle Creek area. Now the company has found out how to get the same colour with the more easily available yellow corn: you first bleach the kernels white, then proceed.

Corn flakes’ connotations for us are of swiftness, sunshine, youth, and brightness. They are as crisp and snack-like as potato chips, sweetened and salted like junk-food, yet hallowed by Milk, which always says “mother.” In North American culture nothing bathed in fresh milk can be threatening or bad. Corn flakes are light, and therefore can get away with being eaten cold, even for breakfast. They are modern and easy, yet already traditional; a fast-paced bachelor food which still manages to remain associated with childhood and with families. Eating them for breakfast is a habit known to many countries on earth yet universally recognized as typically American. Since the food which it eats provides a nation with its identity, corn flakes thus gains yet another claim to be considered as an institution. There is no great distance between cultural “institutions” in this sense and the reverence and sacrality which characterized the attitude of the Indians to corn in pre-Columbian America.

Corn and Genetics

The ubiquity of the corn plant in Colonial America had made it standard material for a thousand uses which had nothing to do with food. One device, which united tobacco and corn, was the corncob smoking pipe. This became an institution in the United States when it began to be manufactured commercially in 1869 at Washington, Missouri, still the corncob-pipe capital of the world. A University of Missouri professor has even provided the business recently with its own specially developed hard cob, corn hybrid MO Pipe 12. The cobs are aged seven years before being carved. They are light, strong, and plentiful, so that the pipes are disposable and replaceable: traditional and rustic, yet convenient and modern. Corn cobs have also done service as fuel, fishing corks, bottle-stoppers, mousehole plugs, back-scratchers, scrubbing brushes, hair curlers, and toilet paper. Stalks piled up outside the walls of a house provided insulation for the winter. Husks were shredded to stuff mattresses and woven into chair-seats or hats.

The colonists moved westward only as fast as corn-lands could be cleared and planted. And as modern American society invented itself, more and more uses were found for corn.

The corn embryo in its kernel is surrounded with a copious sugary food supply, which changes in time to starch. Starch is insoluble in cold water, but in warm its granules burst and form a viscous, jellylike liquid which becomes firm when it cools; a high temperature produces a gum-like substance called dextrin, which is extremely useful for its adhesive properties.

Dextrin, used in the manufacture of porcelain, has to be treated first with sulphurous acid to prevent discolouration in the ovens. In the first decade of the nineteenth century a Russian chemist called G. S. C. Kirchoff mistakenly overdid the treatment, and found to his amazement that he had turned his dextrin into a sweet sticky stuff which (coloured and treated) we now call corn syrup. And so man found that he could convert starch, readily available in the familiar corn kernel, back into the magical substance for which he had been prepared for so long to kill and enslave: sugar. Sugar was to become as limitlessly available as corn starch, and as cheap.

The several spectacular metamorphoses of which starch is capable make it one of the most versatile materials on earth. The ancient Egyptians had obtained it from wheat and used it to coat and stiffen papyrus. The Romans used it in medicines, cosmetics, foods, and fabrics. Wheat was the source of starch in early America also: a company called Colgate and Co. of Jersey City produced starch from wheat. In 1841, an Englishman, Orlando Jones, showed how starch could be extracted from corn, thereby doing a great deal to change the course of American history. In 1844, Colgate dropped wheat for corn as their source of starch.

Today only one-third of the corn starch produced is used in food. The rest goes into thousands of commodities, from latex paint and toothpaste to core binders for the moulding of iron, steel, and aluminium. The Starch Round Table of the American Corn Industries Research Foundation is an annual conference of scientists from all over the world who review the latest research on starch in the service of mankind. They discuss water-resistant (hydrophobic) starch, adhesive starch and anti-adhesive starch, starch in textiles, rubber, woodworking, leather, metallurgy, paper-making, cosmetics, and plastics. They also discuss how to reduce the constituents of starch which absorb oxygen and kill fish when starchy waste waters are discharged into rivers. The Board watches constantly for new mutants of corn. One famous mutant of maize was the previously unknown waxy corn, which was discovered by J. M. W. Farnham, an American Presbyterian missionary in China, and was later found in North and South America as well. Its starch is nearly 100 per cent amylopectin, which makes waxy corn an important commercial crop for the glue and instant pudding industries.

The scientists also discuss genetics. Corn grows very fast and responds extremely well to hybridization. Add to these facts the huge economic importance of the corn crop, the centrality of corn to what is technologically the most advanced society on earth, and it becomes clear why it is that corn is genetically the most tinkered-with plant in existence. Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who discovered the laws of genetics, used peas in his little garden for his experiments. Very soon after Mendel’s forgotten discoveries had been brought to light again by a Dutch botanist in 1900, an American named George Harrison Shull began Mendelian researches into corn.

Eventually the secret of control over corn breeding was found. The rule, once formulated, is very simple: first you produce four inbred lines of maize. Then you cross, and cross again. The pathetic stunted little cobs with twisted rows of kernels which result from inbreeding resume and then multiply their vigour when they are allowed to cross with other similarly inbred plants. Desirable traits triumph over undesirable; quantity is enormously increased; there are no disappointments from controlled seed, and no nasty surprises. Since the 1920s, hybrid corn has revolutionized American farming, and hybridization has been called the greatest agricultural accomplishment since agriculture itself was invented ten thousand years ago.

The Indians had relied on spiritual qualities in themselves—preparation, attitude, and intent—to produce good crops. They insisted on variety, and they knew that maintaining variety meant preventing different types of corn from mixing. The European newcomers had adapted Indian beliefs and methods to their own empirical ways. They set about perfecting types of corn, learning by the look and feel of a cob whether it was producing good healthy seed, then choosing the best kernels to plant. The idea was to improve the crop gradually by always planting the best of every batch. Increased yields were the goal: bigger cobs and more ears per plant wherever possible.

In 1893 a farmer called James Reid won a prize for his spectacular corn. He had inherited the strain from his father Robert, improved and perfected it for many years, and finally showed it at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was called Reid’s Yellow Dent, and it was the result of a failure and an accident. Back in 1847, Robert Reid’s crop of reddish corn had failed in patches, so he planted the bald spots in his fields with a flint corn called Little Yellow. One type fertilized the other, and Reid’s Yellow Dent was the prize-winning result. The cobs were heavy with golden yellow kernels, all of them plump and evenly spaced from cob tip to beautifully rounded butt. Reid’s Yellow Dent was snatched up and planted by whoever could get it; it spread across the United States.

A corollary of all the jubilation and success was hardly noticed then, but for the first time the bell tolled, enunciating the theme of one of the twentieth century’s nightmares. Reid’s Yellow Dent was so good, so obviously preferable, that other corns were forgotten, simply not planted. And “not planted,” when we speak of “man-created” Zea maïs, means nonexistent forever after. Thousands of kinds of corn, varieties reverently preserved and kept separate and distinct by the Indians, as well as many carefully improved by American farmers, disappeared off the face of the earth.

The years between 1900 and 1920 in the United States and Canada were the years of the corn shows. Farmers were educated in farming methods and modernization. There were corn trains which travelled across the continent disseminating information, teaching farmers how to recognize good seed corn, and how to test it to make sure it would grow before planting it. Corn-shucking contests became a spectator sport. At the annual corn shows, farmers exhibited their best cobs and won prizes for the beauty of the ears. One of the great American myths was being created and accepted with ever-increasing confidence and fervour: that beauty—in corn as in anything else—is largely a matter of uniformity. Straight rows of kernels were admired, truly cylindrical cobs, absolute uniformity of colour, yellow or white. (Red corn, black, blue, and the rest had long ago been eliminated as unacceptable for North Americans.) Curiously enough, beauty was allowed to overshadow performance in these years: a farmer showed only a few perfect ears; the amount of the yield was not taken into consideration in awarding the prizes.

In 1922 hybrid corn began to become commercially available. By 1950 the corn shows and the corn judges had been swept away: hybrid corns (based largely on germ-plasm from Reid’s Yellow Dent) became available which were absolutely reliable, predictable, and capable of yields previously undreamed of. Farm machinery was invented, and once it appeared it had to be bought if a farmer wanted to stay in business. Corn genetics enabled farm machinery to operate, because it produced plants to order which the machines could handle.

As mentioned earlier, a corn plant is both male (its tassels) and female (its silks). Hybrid corn seed is achieved by removing the tassels of the inbred line of corn which is to bear the grain, so that the plant cannot seed itself but will receive pollen from the other inbred parent chosen to be planted in the same field. “Tasselling” (removing the tassels, which has to be done by hand so that the rest of the plant suffers no damage) is still an enormous summer task in many countries, demanding waves of temporary labour at the appropriate times. Poor tasselling can mean an undesirable mixture of hybrid and non-hybrid seed. Ultra-modern seed farms in the United States and Canada, and increasingly in Europe, have adopted a new technique which does away with this human labour: male sterile plants have been designed, by genetic manipulation, to produce no pollen.

Corn has been bred for “standability”: stalks stiff enough that ears can be mechanically harvested without the plants collapsing. “standability” is placed above “yield” in many lists of the desirable features of corn for the farmer. Other priorities in hybrid corn are: yield, maturation at a time when the least possible drying is required, disease and insect resistance, machine suitability (not too many cobs, a plant which does not grow too high or too low, relative weakness of ear-attachment to the stalk), uniformity and quality of grain.

Geneticists have also tackled corn’s protein deficiency in an effort to make grain capable in itself of supplying all nutritional needs. They have come up with Opaque II, named after a corn gene which increases available lysine in the kernels. Opaque II has so far proved most useful in feeding pigs, which have nutritional needs very similar to man’s. But Opaque II “buys” its uncommon protein strength with what geneticists call “garbage traits”: low yield, and a soft kernel susceptible to moulds and damage in harvesting.

The world now grows 500 million metric tons of corn a year, nearly half of it in the United States. Eighty per cent of the American maize crop is produced in the Corn Belt, an area 350,000 miles square, which stretches from western Ohio to eastern Nebraska, with the largest corn tonnage of all coming from Iowa and Illinois. The hungry mouths of the world and the tireless wheels of industry depend upon this modern hybrid wonder, the answer to thousands of years of human fears, hopes, and endeavours. American corn is a spearhead of the modern “Green Revolution,” one of the proudest answers of scientists to the threat of world hunger.

“And he gave it for his opinion,” Jonathan Swift wrote in Gulliver’s Travels, “that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.” What would he have thought of the scientists who gave us American corn, a single grain of which in four months flat can multiply itself eight hundred times over?

Now the Bad News

In the 1930s, farms in the United States, and soon after in Canada, began to be mechanized. The arduous labour of farming was lifted from man’s shoulders for the first time since he had learned to make vegetation grow for him instead of having to hunt for it. Today’s corn farmer prepares his soil with machines. Maize drains the soil of nitrogen and this must constantly be replaced, so anhydrous ammonia—a stable gas created when atmospheric nitrogen is flared under pressure with methane—is sold in huge metal cylinders to farmers. They literally inject the soil with gas, drawing a system of knives behind tractors mounted with pressurized tanks of ammonia.

Machines then move in to plant the seed by means of calibrated plates or air pressure. Next phosphorus, often in liquid form which permits direct contact with the seed, and potassium and other nutrients are added in proportions ascertained by scientific analysis of the soil. Insecticides are applied—the seed already having received treatment with insecticides before planting. Weed-killers are essential, because soils artificially nourished with nitrogen and other chemicals make weeds grow as fast as corn. Herbicides, like insecticides, are, in the language of the sales catalogues, “preplant incorporated, preemergence or post-emergence in application.”

But weeds and insects are learning to adapt to these poison doses: insects resistant to insecticides and “new” weeds immune to herbicides constantly appear, and ever more complex programmes of poisons must be developed. More and more farmers are arming themselves with computers to analyse soil and correct plant populations.

The growing corn needs huge quantities of water, which nearly always has to be piped in and sprayed over the plants. This water seeps through a soil soaked in chemicals, and inevitably leaches the chemicals into the region’s groundwater system: the nitrite levels of groundwater in the Corn Belt are often twice as high as what is thought to be the upper limit of potability. Phosphate runoff from these soils fills rivers and ponds with algae.

The harvest is done mechanically: the kernels are even stripped from the cobs in the field. Human labour is reduced to driving the tractors and sorting, and even the latter is scarcely necessary for corn, so high is the predictable uniformity of the hybrid product. And then the corn must be speed-dried with hot air to improve its keeping qualities, and carefully cooled to prevent cracking. Natural drying is very difficult if quantities are very large, as they are on a modern farm.

With corn, as with so many crops, machines replacing people means more food, but fewer people working. In the early twentieth century over 90 per cent of North Americans lived on the land; now 97 per cent of them live in towns and cities. That is quite a transformation—a shifting of population on an unprecedentedly huge scale. Just over 3 per cent of the citizens of the United States now feed the entire population. Decline in the number of people living in the countryside means huge farms, and far fewer of them. Few indeed can afford the capital investment in machinery and in chemicals that are needed to begin, or even to continue, a farm. The wonder-corn seed must be constantly created anew: it does not keep its vigour. Therefore seed companies create hybrid grain, and farmers must buy their seed every year.

Small towns have disappeared by the hundreds in North America, and with them rural social institutions, customs, traditions. Farmers now must travel huge distances to get off their own farms—to transport their children to school for example, or to get to a doctor. Even on successful working farms with all their battle array of heavy equipment, farmers find that they need non-farm income: increasingly they take other jobs-bus driving, teaching, selling insurance, even working in factories-with all the travel involved in getting to the extra employment. The truth is that farmers are not often rich, or even particularly well off. The machines certainly produce plenty of corn and other farm crops, but prices to the consumer are extraordinarily low, and the machines are extremely expensive to run and repair as well as to buy.

Less is paid for food, in terms of percentage of income, in North America than anywhere else on earth since the history of universal “incomes” began. North Americans keep their money for other things—mainly for other machines. Low food costs, brought about by machines, permit people to buy themselves more machines. It seems simple, and quite delightful; as long as hidden costs (loss of water for example, or loss of alternatives) are kept out of sight.

Vast quantities of the corn crop are consumed by people in the form of beef, pork, and chicken. Corn-fattening animals for market is a hugely profitable process. Beef calves are kept, after weaning, for six months on three meals a day of hay, oats, corn, and cornstalks. When they weigh 365 kilograms (800 lbs.) they are sold to a feedlot operator, who gives them an unvarying diet of ground corn till they clock in at 550 kilograms (1,200 lbs.), the agreed market weight. The animals are kept in large numbers and in very close confinement: movement, by building up muscle, inhibits fat. Feed is carted in to them automatically and the manure is trundled out. But even granted modern transport and disposal technology the pollution resulting from the endless massive tonnages of manure which result from beef fattening is a horror which has hardly begun to be understood, let alone treated. Water, both underground and in surrounding streams, is poisoned and wasted—irreparably, so far.

In Guatemala today live the descendants of the ancient Mayans. Like many Indian tribes, they practise agricultural methods a thousand and more years old. Every farmer first chooses his corn patch or milpa with enormous care, having regard to the site and the soil. He prepares his land by slashing the underbrush and cutting down the trees. Next, he waits, watching clouds and leaves, moon and wind, leaving his plot to dry out until the perfect day arrives.

Then comes the exultant moment when the dry vegetation is set on fire. The Indians report that the firing causes them “immense joy.” The fire, they say, kills the insects noxious to corn and makes the soil “sweat,” which is extremely good for it, especially if rain occurs immediately after firing. The moment the ash has cooled, and not a day later, the planting is done, right into the ash. The farmers poke sticks into the ground, drop in a few kernels and cover them roughly. They leave tree stumps standing; they make holes not in rows but wherever seems right in the spaces between stumps.

As the corn grows, they double the stalks over to protect the cobs from rainwater, and watch it carefully, scaring off swarms of parrots and other predators. Often a family moves into a hut in the corn patch—which might be quite far from the village—and lives there while the corn grows, tending it and enjoying the hunt for animals which the growing maize draws to itself like fish after bait. Living in the milpa for a few months is regarded as a restful, recreative time, full of—stimulating fun and profit. Finally the harvest is culled, by hand. After this the milpa is abandoned: left for nature to re-instal itself, and for the land to become “young and strong” again. A milpa cannot be slashed and burned for at least seven years after a harvest, for the corn has “sucked dry” or “withered” the soil.

Now all this slash-and-burn or “swidden” agriculture (the method is typical of that of many societies which still exist) is not nearly productive enough. It is far too much work, wasteful and slow and unaware of the power man now has of controlling the plant and its predators. Besides, populations are growing and hungry: they need to be fed. Once hybrid corn was established in the United States, it was not long before a movement began to carry the new knowledge and its successful progeny to the Third World. HYVS (High Yielding Varieties) of corn were introduced to people long used to much less, and much slower production. The “Green Revolution” had begun. It was enthusiastically and gratefully accepted. There is no doubt that large numbers of people owe their lives to its benefits.

Yet—once again—there has been a heartbreaking price to pay. It was discovered (too late) that the sudden introduction of modern agriculture into traditional societies very often benefited the rich, destroying the small farmers’ livelihoods and all their independence. Expensive machines are available to few, and instantly crush competition. Mechanization always reduces employment, forcing people to leave the land for the crowded and often desperately poor cities. “Green Revolution” methods cost a great deal in water and in money for chemicals and seed, even when the machines have been installed. Technological prowess has so far maintained its prestige almost intact, because its benefits are so swift and so obvious. The risks it takes are only intermittently perceived to be risks, and then only when the damage has been done.

A well-meaning team of agriculturalists moves in to a swidden system not unlike the Guatemalan example we looked at. The untidiness, the wastage of the slash-and-burn method are swiftly gauged. In goes the heavy equipment. No more tree stumps, slashed undergrowth, ash. Parrots are so heavily discouraged that they will never trouble this region—or any other—again. For a year or two, an unbelievable amount of cylindrical yellow straight-rowed corn is triumphantly grown on ground pumped full of nitrogen and phosphate. But finally truth is revealed and tragic knowledge achieved: it becomes apparent that the forest’s topsoil—that topsoil which had been preserved, waited on, and respected by generation upon generation of Indian slash-and-burn farmers—has been destroyed. And that top-soil can never be restored. The damage is done and irreparable.

It will not be long before dependence on artificial fertilizers will be so intense that it will be counterproductive in terms of cost and further destruction. By this time, many traditional crops will also have been lost to modern streamlining and size: vast, fragile corn monocultures with surpluses to sell for cash will have replaced a whole gamut of nutritious, home-grown foods. The fossil fuels and the phosphate upon which the “Green Revolution” relies have often to be imported at considerable and unending cost. It has been estimated that by the new methods it takes the equivalent in fossil fuels of seven hundred and fifty litres of petroleum to produce one hectare of corn (67 Imperial gallons to produce 1 acre).

Worst of all, varieties of corn are disappearing by the dozen even as these words are being written. A corn not being planted is a corn which ceases to exist; man alone can keep Zea maïs alive. Hybrid corns have been created, and continue to be crossed and improved and adapted to various circumstances, but hybrids are combinations only. Their ancestral lines are germ-plasm from corn varieties. Which lines are used is in fact largely a matter of chance. Reid’s Yellow Dent was itself an accident. And often corn types which have extraordinarily valuable traits have come to light in obscure traditional corn cultures. Who knows what possibilities lay in the genetic material of the thousands of corns we have rejected and therefore lost in the last hundred years?

In 1970 an epidemic of corn leaf blight struck the United States: oblong lesions appeared on the leaves, stalks weakened and fell, yield was greatly reduced. This new mutant strain of an ancient scourge victimized only one type of corn-but that type had been planted by almost every farmer in the country. This corn variety contained Texas cytoplasm, the secret of the new way to prevent the labour of tasselling. Scientists hurriedly replaced the Texas with normal cytoplasm, thousands of people suddenly found temporary tasselling jobs again, and the danger was soon averted. This was possible only because alternative genes existed. One of the most popular traits of the labour-saving corn hybrids with Texas cytoplasm in their parentage had been the built-in resistance of these plants to corn leaf blight—the corn leaf blight people were used to, that is. It took only a slight mutation in the same blight to cancel out this scientific advance. Meanwhile confidence in the latest technology had led to intense standardization and therefore to a terrifying vulnerability to the disease. Yet even now, with the lesson of 1970 behind us, only six main strains make up the gene stock of nearly 50 per cent of all corn grown in the United States.

Sheer variety in the plant kingdom turns out to be a fact of inestimable value for man. The Indians, as we recall, had revered variety. The war which modern North Americans have waged against the necessity to work has benefited from what seems at first sight a tactical triumph: uniformity. Uniform crops are easy to sow, easy to harvest, easy to sell. Machines like, demand, and produce uniformity. But nature loathes it: her strength lies in multiplicity and in differences. Sameness, in biology, means fewer possibilities and, therefore, weakness.

Awareness of the fragility of huge monocultures of corn (or of wheat, rice, or anything else) has spurred efforts to preserve examples of threatened plant types, even if they do not seem for the moment to be useful. The trouble with these collections, however, is that they are even more dependent on man than corn is in the field. Plant libraries must be artificially operated and maintained; mistakes or interruptions in the servicing of these institutions—a simple electric power cut for example—can, of course, mean disastrous and perhaps permanent losses.

And who is to own the plant collections? The people from whose countries the germ-plasm was taken in the first place? Or the people who found and saved the germ-plasm, built the new preserving facilities when the dangers were first realized, and who now take most responsibility for the upkeep of the holdings? The United States and Canada, Japan and Europe have hardly any natural resources of germ-plasm for the major food crops of the world, most of which originated in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Central America gave corn to the world, yet North American and European-owned multi-national corporations control the creation of hybrid corns and sell the seeds to the Third World. The same corporations produce the whole array of products without which “Green Revolution” farming cannot continue: fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy machinery. Some Third World representatives even complain that they are not getting the very best hybrid seed, that the United States and other powerful countries keep the best grain for themselves, and that they limit access by poorer countries to the germ-plasm holdings.

So the wrangling and hard feelings continue, even as genetic erosion goes on almost unabated. Uniformity, disguise itself as it may behind the multiplicity of cans, boxes, bottles, and cartons in our supermarkets, is a peculiarly modern curse. Everything on the shelves contains corn. We therefore depend on corn. But corn depends increasingly, because of our wanton wastefulness, on us. Our own demonstrations of our incapacity to manage have placed us more and more exclusively and inescapably in charge.