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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.
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