Corn People: How It Started
If you’ve been following the food news, you probably know by now: we are corn. Just about every item in the meat and dairy cases, just about every ingredient in processed food, somehow begins as corn in the corn field. This is not obvious from the mind-boggling array of goods on display at your local grocery.
The corn-ification of our food supply is perhaps the most significant change in the U.S. food scene in the last hundred years. We mostly think of this as a consequence of “industrial food”: bigger and bigger food processors squeezing more and more profit out of less and less input.That’s definitely the story of the twentieth century, not just for food but for just about every commodity. Here’s an interesting twist, though: what set it all in motion wasn’t just greedy agri-business.
Corn used to be just for animals to eat. The reason humans started eating more and more corn, and more and more processed corn products, was because of the U.S. Government. Or you could even say it was because of Germany. Or imperialism. Or the ambition and folly that drives humans to war.
Don’t worry, I’ll get to the candy part. But to understand what happened to candy, you have to understand what happened to food more generally. And to understand that, you have to go back to the first World War, back to 1916.
Ironically, the stage was set for the corn take over by some very charitable motivations. It was the start of World War I. We hadn’t committed to fight yet, but our allies in England and France and Italy were under attack, and hurting. Europe was experiencing terrible food shortages, and the U.S. was at the ready to help with the bounty of amazing agricultural resources.
But by 1918, the American agricultural surplus was gone, and the U.S. had joined the war. Wheat in particular was in short supply, due to poor crops in 1917. Lower food harvests combined with desperate appeals from overseas inspired the U.S. Food Administration to launch a campaign for voluntary reductions in wheat consumption. Instead of wheat, Americans could eat corn.
There was plenty of corn to be had. The crop in 1917 was more than 3 billion bushels, and only six percent of that crop was normally used for human consumption, the rest going to feed cattle and livestock. But Americans weren’t accustomed to eating corn.
In the spring of 1917 and then in an expanded version in 1918 the American Museum of Natural History put on a Food Conservation Exhibition which aimed both to educate the public about proper nutrition and to support the war through encouraging food conservation. The exhibit was extremely successful in New York, where it traveled to various schools and civic centers through late 1917 and early 1918. It was praised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “the best food exhibit yet prepared,” and was widely emulated by other museums around the nation.
Corn wasn’t part of the original plan for the exhibit cooked up in 1915. But by 1918, Americans needed to know that corn was the food of choice for patriotic citizens supporting the war effort:
The value to the country of the corn crop is being emphasized in the food exhibit in the foyer of the Museum by presenting scores of ways in which this chief of American cereals may be used in the home. The Corn Products Refining Company has presented to the Museum twenty-two products made from corn. Among these are various starches used for jellies, puddings, pie filling, and sauces; the syrups and sugars for confectionery, preserves, jams, and jellies; and the oils used for general cooking, pastry, and salads. Great quantities of gluten and oil cake, besides corn meal, are used for feeding cattle, thus indirectly contributing to our food supply. Aside from their food value, corn products have a large place in the arts and industries. From corn oil are made leather, rubber, paints, and varnishes; the starches are used for laundry purposes, for ‘sizes’ in textile and paper industries, and for soaps an adhesives; the syrups and sugars are used in tanning, in shoe polishes, hair tonics, chewing tobacco, and in the manufacture of lactic acid and vinegar. (Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420)
Perhaps the multiple forms of corn would have eventually insinuated their way into American life anyway. The War gave corn an air of necessity and of patriotism. Corn was a good choice, corn was helping America and its Allies in the war effort.
Corn meal could take the place of wheat in the nation’s bakeries and bread baskets. In the words of Professor Graham Lusk, a food expert at Cornell University who advised on the U.S. food program as well as the AMNH Food Exhibit, “corn bread became the bread of every patriotic citizen.”
And what about candy? Sugar was in short supply and everybody, including the candy industry, was conserving. Corn had a solution there as well, a way to keep the candy coming, just as sweet: corn syrup.
In my next post, I’ll tell you more about how the WWI food shortages and rationing programs created modern candy.
Sources: The quote about corn at the exhibit is from Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420; the quote from Graham Lusk is from Lusk, “The Food Supply of our Allies,” Am Mus Journal 18.8 Dec 1918: 629-635; quote on p. 630; the quote regarding the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is from Am Mus Journal Nov. 1918 p. 623. Accounts of the Food Exhibit can be found in the Annual Reports for the American Museum of Natural History for 1917 through 1925. I consulted correspondence and clippings relating to the Food Exhibit at the AMNH Archives; my thanks to librarian Mai Qamaran for her assistance in locating relevant materials. As general background, Michael Pollan describes the ubiquity of corn in our diet in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an excellent place to start one’s food re-education.