- Midwest Maize How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland by Cynthia Clampitt
This highly readable survey of the history of one of the world’s most important foods is packed with information, but offers no new interpretation or a thorough exploration of primary sources. It is a mostly positive history of innovators and doers, of strivers and settlers, and is written for a general audience. Midwest Maize is a useful source for anyone seeking to understand the importance of this grain in American history and especially the Midwest. While little in this synthesis will be new for academics, most readers will find it to be an entertaining read.
Maize is a type of grass, with big leaves that effectively convert sunlight and nutrients into growth. Humans have been tinkering with the crop for thousands of years. It was a vital crop for Mexico and Central America more than 5,000 years ago. By 500 A.D. the crop had adapted to northern climates and was grown in what is today the state of New York. It was easy to grow and provided lots of food for native societies, as well as Europeans. One ear of corn provides as much grain as 100 ears of wheat. Maize became known as Indian corn and then simply corn in the American colonies.
Corn helped conquer the American frontier, feeding generations of settlers as they moved west. Crop-fed farmers and city dwellers spawned all sorts of innovations that helped to bring the crop from seed to table. Tools and machinery were made to help harvest it—plows and tractors cut labor needs, for example. Grain elevators, grain bins, stockyards, and railroads all evolved to help produce and transport the crop. There is rarely a technological advance that does not appear tied to corn, from cast-iron stoves to canned foods to pivot irrigation. Much of the book is a history of white men and their inventions.
The grain is often consumed by livestock and poultry, rather than by humans. Corn is the only one of the major three grain crops—the others are rice and wheat—that is widely fed to [End Page 79] livestock because it is the only plant that can meet the calorie needs of large animals. Long before railroads, corn was fed to hogs before slaughter, as it was cheaper to transport corn as pork on the hoof. Feeding corn to cattle, rather than letting them eat only grass, still allows for the greater production of meat. Corn is fed to dairy and beef cows, as well as chickens and pigs, to supplement their diet and encourage faster growth. Without corn, many more millions of acres of land would need to be devoted to raising beef. An area the size of several states is saved by the use of corn as an animal feed. The use of corn as animal and human food does help to feed Americans pretty cheaply, she argues. That millions of acres of land are dedicated to growing corn to feed animals is a complicating fact to this story that Clampitt does not fully explore.
Clampitt’s writing is lively and keeps the reader’s attention. The book has an entertaining chapter on popcorn—an industry that started in the late 1800s. The first popcorn machine, which automatically popped, buttered, and salted the snack, had a steam engine. The American Popcorn Company, started in Iowa, sold 75,000 pounds of the stuff in its first year: 1914. Movie theatres helped to popularize the treat in the early twentieth century and popcorn was an affordable diversion during World War Two, when many luxuries were rationed. Sales tripled during the war and it has been a favorite snack of Americans ever since.
Corn is, of course, transformed into more than popcorn or beef. It has long been distilled into alcohol, especially after the American Revolution, when molasses for rum was in short supply. Whiskey was cheap and safer to drink than...