Amid the alien corn

Maize is a far more useful grain than we give it credit for

Food
A US poster from 1919, when corn was a staple of the national diet

When the gods try to create humans, in the Popol Vuh, the creation myth of the K’ich’e Mayan people of central America, it’s only the staple food, maize dough, which is stable enough. Their first two attempts failed: humans made from mud had no minds; humans made from wood had no souls. Humans made from white and yellow corn had both but were too wise. The gods, feeling threatened, made us more stupid so we could be allowed to live. (Finally—humanity explained.)

Today corn is mostly not grown for human consumption: about 40 per cent of US corn goes to biofuel (in the form of ethanol) and 36 per cent to animal feed (effectively subsidising meat consumption, since corn receives huge government funding). Of the portion which goes to human consumption, most is turned into sugar, as high-fructose corn syrup. But even past the days of johnnycakes and spoonbread it signifies the old-fashioned midwest America, down-home and unsophisticated.

In the 1942 musical You Were Never Lovelier, Fred Astaire, attempting to persuade Rita Hayworth of his romantic unsuitability, protests: “I’m a plain ordinary guy from Omaha, Nebraska . . . Sister, I was raised amongst the grasshoppers. I am strictly from corn!” Incongruous as it may seem, this is an in-joke about Astaire and his screen image of sophistication: he really was from Omaha. The dance number Hayworth and Astaire move on into—a Jerome Kern tune, now a classic—is called “I’m Old-Fashioned”.

Likewise, in the extremely wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945), which revolves around a family visiting the Iowa State Fair, we get “I am Ioway born and bred/And on Ioway corn I’m fed,” in the song “I owe Ioway”. Corn lends its name to the adjective for something hokey. “Cornpone”—unleavened cornbread—is a hillbilly, a hick.

But corn is more complicated than it gets credit for. On holiday a couple of years ago in the Kaçkar mountains of north-east Turkey, I found that maize is a ubiquitous staple: cornmeal is on every menu in some form, in particular as kuymak, a gooey fondue-like dish—cornmeal cooked in butter with a ludicrous amount of cheese melted into it. (They make even halva out of cornmeal.) I had corn-on-the-cob from a roadside stall and was pleasantly surprised that it was starchy, not juicy and sweet. I realised it must be the local corn I was eating, not one of the super-sweet kinds we’re used to eating as sweetcorn.
In the UK your maize experience is likely to be limited to polenta, sweetcorn and popcorn, but when you get to traditional ways of preparing corn, the variety increases vastly. Anson Mills, a Carolina-based company which farms and mills heirloom grains, argues that “corn possesses the most culinary diversity of any grain. From corn flour to very coarse grits, whole hominy to hominy grits, nixtamal to masa to chicas, parch meal to ancient roasting corns.” In her essay “Mother Corn and the Dixie Pig” (in The Larder, University of Georgia Press) Rayna Green lists some Native American corn dishes which never became “mainstream” Southern food: banaha, “a tamale-like corn mush with field peas and/or pea shell ash”; tamfula, “a hominy and hickory nut soup/cream”; sofkee, “a soup or drink made of soured cornmeal”. (Hominy is whole dried corn kernels; tamales are steamed corn-dough parcels.)

Grits, the coarse cornmeal porridge, remains the archetypal Southern US comfort food and amicable arguments still erupt about how to eat them. The cultural divide seems to be that in the South, it’s with salt and butter, and absolutely never with sugar; outside the South, as much sugar as you like. The second series of the Netflix show Dear White People opens with an argument between black students in a college dining hall on whether to add sugar or salt to breakfast grits: “You don’t sugar your grits?”—“No, I have working taste buds.”—“Salty grits are trash.” On the other hand, the Charlotte Observer—jokingly—announced: “With all the calamitous political carryings-on occurring in North Carolina . . . anyone with good sense knows that a far more serious threat facing us here in the South comes from people who say you shouldn’t put sugar in your grits.”

I thought it best to go straight to the source and ordered a variety of grits from Anson Mills—coarse, quick, white, yellow, blue, “pencil cob”.  (They ship to the UK; a 12-oz sachet of almost anything is $5.95.) And yes: grits is different from polenta, which you will discover if you make it (or if you read the helpful explanation on the Anson Mills site). Not only is polenta  made from hard “flint” corn, while grits is made from soft “dent” corn”, but the milling process is different: polenta has particles all the same size, grits has particles of widely varying sizes. The difference when you cook it up is that polenta has “grip”, the famous almost beady texture. Grits is softer, and the grits from Anson Mills have a pronounced and definite corn flavour; they taste sweet of their own accord. When I tasted them I was shocked by how distinctly and unambiguously the flavour of sweet corn came through, no sugar necesary. Sisters, I am converted—I have become  a plain ordinary girl, strictly made of corn.