Food historian and travel writer Cynthia Clampitt recently answered some questions about her book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland.
Q: What was the importance of corn to Native Americas before European contact?
Cynthia Clampitt: To a certain degree, it had an importance similar to what it has had for Europeans. It made it possible for fewer people to raise more food. Plus women and even children could do the work, particularly harvesting. In most cases, that meant the ability to support large cities and expand empires. It enabled the Maya to pursue astronomy and mathematics. A thousand years ago, Cahokia, along the Mississippi River, was one of the largest cities in the world. The great empires of the Americas all depended on corn. In the Roman Empire, it took 19 rural workers to support one resident of the city of Rome. In the Americas, corn reversed that ratio.
Q: Biologically, what makes corn suited to growing in so many different environments?
Clampitt: Nothing else hybridizes as easily as corn. I’m not speaking of the intentional hybridizing of the last century, but simply the fact that corn produces huge amounts of pollen, all of it scattered by the wind—nothing so precise as an insect or bird—so a stand of corn was always being pollinated by any other corn in the neighborhood. Corn also mutates easily. Native Americans took huge advantage of these traits, and by the time Europeans first appeared, there were more than 200 varieties of corn that had been either developed or identified, nurtured, and crossbred by Native Americans.
Q: Where is it believed that corn was first cultivated?
Clampitt: The evidence all points to Oaxaca, Mexico, or possibly Oaxaca and a few close neighbors, as the place that corn first appeared. It was actually a mutation of a short, scrubby grass called teosinte, which still grows wild in the area. The reason it took a long time to identify the point of origin is that, once the mutant teosinte had been nurtured by the Native Americans and developed into what we’d recognize as corn, it spread so rapidly that it appeared to have arisen in a far wider area than it did.
Q: When did corn begin to dominate Midwestern agriculture and the American diet?
Clampitt: Actually, there is no time that corn did not dominate Midwestern agriculture. The first settlers to move westward, as the young country expanded after the American Revolution and then the Louisiana Purchase, were all from the eastern states—states that already had a couple hundred years experience with corn. It was the grain that identified us as Americans. Even Thomas Jefferson, gourmet that he was, missed it so much when he was stationed in France that he planted corn in his garden there.
But there were more important reasons than just being the culinary and sentimental favorite. First of all, one seed gives you half a pound of food. You need a hundred grains of wheat to produce that much food. If you’re wandering into the wilderness, you want to carry the least amount of weight possible, and the amount of food one seed could produce made corn the obvious choice. Plus corn will grow just about anywhere. Think of the failed attempts to grow wheat that threatened the survival of Jamestown and Plymouth. If you weren’t sure what you’d encounter, you wanted to be growing corn. Plus corn could be fed to the animals, as well as the humans. And it took almost no processing. Green corn (immature corn that can be eaten like sweet corn) could actually be eaten without cooking, and while dry corn had to be pounded into meal to make bread, that could be accomplished with a mortar and pestle. One did not need a flourmill. So it was the ideal crop for settlers moving into the wilderness. Then, as the region grew, even when wheat was introduced, corn remained the dominant crop because it has so many uses—cooking, distilling (lot of whiskey being made on the frontier), and animal feed. So corn has always dominated the Midwest. In fact, it created the Midwest—and it made it possible for the region to be settled faster than any other region in history. But it didn’t just build farms; it built the cities, too.
Q: When and how did popcorn gain commercial popularity in the U.S.?
Clampitt: Popcorn is actually the most ancient of the types of corn. However, when corn began spreading through the Americas, popcorn headed south, rather than north. So it wasn’t until New England ships brought it back from South America in the early 1800s that it was introduced to the U.S. population. By the end of the Civil War, it had spread across the continent. However, it wasn’t until the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, when C.C. Cretors introduced both the popcorn machine and the idea of buttering the popcorn, that it was poised to become an industry, rather than just a hobby for folks with large gardens.
The late 1800s were also years of cultural change, as the explosion of inventions designed to speed travel and reduce housework created something rarely experienced before: leisure time. People were going to fairs, sporting events, and parks in increasing numbers, and thanks to the Cretors popcorn wagons, popcorn could be wherever people were. Even more important was that fact that, for those who needed work, the wagons offered a relatively low-cost startup business. Thousands of people across the Midwest were soon making a living, selling hot, buttered popcorn and roasted peanuts from their Cretors wagons. As the culture changed and the cities grew, popcorn continued to find its way into lives, moving into movie theaters and then homes. However, it has never ceased to be popular.