Corn, Reborn

At a recent gathering we hit folks with a hipster quiz, to rate how trendy they were. Had they downloaded the hottest songs? Seen the hottest movies? Lost hours of their lives to Trivia Crack?Since those present ranged in age from 14 to 85, you might imagine that trendiness varied widely. In one area, however, just about everyone was in step with the times. Or the times, circa 2014!

Passé on two counts

This area was food trends. I asked if anyone had consumed, within the previous week:

  1. Greek yogurt;
  2. A smoothie with vegetables in it;
  3. Bacon-flavored anything (other than just bacon itself); or
  4. Something labeled "gluten-free."
Scoring was impressive. Except that those trends are supposedly on the wane now.
For that refreshing, "I just ate breakfast" feeling

It's 2015 people, and according to this recent CNN article, we've got all new food trends:

  1. Radishes. Because they're so...radish-y, I guess.
  2. Yogurt with vegetables in it. Because...ick.
  3. Maple syrup. Because all our bees are dropping dead, but there's no shortage of maples in Canada, for the time being. If only the danged trees could make themselves useful and do some pollinating while they're at it.
  4. Sour flavors. The kids had the jump on us on this one. They've been downing sour Gummi worms for years.
  5. Hemp. Because with all that legal marijuana, we've got more seeds floating around. Hemp milk! Hemp in cereals! Hemp--it's what's for dinner, not just what's tying the yacht to the dock.
  6. Old school cocktails. Might be sentimentality over Mad Men ending, but those drinks grandpa drank are ba-a-a-ack!
  7. Eating seasonally, if not locally. Not sure I get this one, since, to co-opt the drinking excuse, it's always summer somewhere.
  8. The end of restrictive elimination diets. Which means that book I reviewed earlier, Smart People Don't Diet, is exactly on trend. Impressive.
  9. Spanish cuisine. Not only is the country a hot tourist destination, but the food is in too! And if you make or eat it in America, you can even eat your dinner before nine o'clock.
  10. And finally, trendwatchers predict fancy cookies on dessert menus. Well, duh.
But supposing you're still clinging to 2014's food trends. Greek yogurt tastes like ice cream, you argue. Or, It may be 2015, but I'm still gluten-intolerant!

It's okay to be out of style. In fact, if gluten still isn't your thing, you may as well go all the way and be 250 years out of style. I've been reading a fascinating little history of American meals called Three Squares, and in one passage, author Abigail Carroll describes how Ben Franklin patriotically stuck up for American consumption of "Indian corn" in the face of English snootiness.
Franklin deemed corn "one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world...its green leaves roasted[!] are a delicacy beyond express;...samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties, and...Johnny cake or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire [English] muffin."
This impassioned declaration got me to thinking--colonial Americans often ate gluten-free by default. After all, wheat ain't easy to grow, and Carroll notes that wheat didn't take off in America or become widely (or cheaply) available until the end of the 18th century. Instead, early Americans ate plenty of peas and that Native American local favorite, corn. 
So say you're clinging to your retro, gluten-free food trend and want to get back to corn. What are these luscious dishes Franklin references? 
Samp: corn porridge similar to oatmeal, based on a Native American dish nausamp. Plimoth Plantation provides recipes for both here.
Hominy: yes, that hominy--like you find in cans in the Mexican food section. I guess they mixed it with bacon (another ancient food trend!) or ham and ate up.
Succotash: a boiled, one-pot meal in olden days. Zester Daily gives a history and recipe here (and hominy makes its second appearance). 
Nokehock: apparently this recipe has fallen out of favor in the last 250 years, so maybe Franklin was alone in his appreciation for it. Another author of an American food history defines it as "parched corn cooked in hot ashes, then pounded into meal." Uh, yum?
Johnny cake: recipes for corn pancakes have never gone completely out of style, and looking this one over made me want to whip some up. 
Add a dollop of Greek yogurt, some bacon-flavored maple syrup, and wash it all down with a kale smoothie, and it'll be like 2014 all over again!

5 Reasons Not to Scorn Organic Corn

The Hedlin alternative

'Tis the season of cheap corn in the stores, and for the past week I've had corn on the brain. Is it worth it, to buy organic from the Market's small farmers, supposing the taste to be equal?

First, to clarify, there's a difference between "field corn" and "sweet corn." Most field corn is grown in the Midwest and made into tortillas, chips, corn syrup, ethanol, corn "plasticware," and animal feed. Chances are, if you're not eating it with your salsa, you're eating it in your processed food products, using it as a utensil to shovel it into your mouth, using it to power your car, and eating it in your feedlot meat. (For a longer discussion of this, see Michael Pollan's chapter on it in The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

Then there's sweet corn, the kind we eat off the cob, canned, or in the frozen food section, Washington State is the #1 producer in the U.S. In both cases, here's why my family has gone organic where possible.

1. Most (90% of) field corn and up to 40% of sweet corn is genetically-modified to resist Roundup and produce its own insect toxin. It used to be that field corn was the stuff you had to be wary of, and sweet corn was fine, but Monsanto's recent push into sweet corn seeds has been changing the picture. I wonder how long sweet corn can stay on the Environmental Working Group's "Clean 15." It would be a shame to see Washington's wonderful farmland go the way of Iowa and the rest of the Midwest.

2. Corn monoculture is an environmental killer. I'm talking about those fields and fields of corn. I recently read/skimmed Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs because I love disaster books, and one of his chapters of planetary disaster was based on the days he and a friend spent out in an Iowa cornfield, where he meditated on species extinction (there were no plants or wildlife to speak of out there, besides corn), the dangers of the favored pesticide atrazine, the rise in genetically-resistant pests, and the plummeting Monarch butterfly populations. Bad stuff, and another reason to buy corn from our small, diversified, local farms.

3. Cheap conventional corn has wrought havoc on Mexico's economy. Because our conventional corn is subsidized, we can sell it to the world at rock-bottom prices. Problem #1: some of their farmers go out of business and have to go looking elsewhere for work, legally or illegally. Problem #2: when our corn prices rise because of drought or diversion to ethanol production, everyone feels the pain.

4. Corn ethanol requires 29 percent more energy to produce than the fuel generates. I know, this post  is supposed to be about the corn we eat, but I had to throw this in because I HATE ethanol. It's environmentally inefficient and lowers gas mileage, to boot.

5. Our Market farmers grow non-GMO, organic varieties that let you bypass reasons 1-4. Try Alvarez Organic's "Rambunction Yellow" corn, grown in Mabton, Washington, over the mountains. Or Hedlin Farms' "Sheba," which Kai describes as super sweet. He says Sheba is actually an early variety, but it comes on later in Western Washington.

A perfect ear of "Rambunctious Yellow"

Boil or grill some up this week, or, if you're over beating up on Paula Deen, try her recipe for Corn, Avocado, and Tomato Salad. Everything but the avocado can be had at our Market!

Subsidies and Our Food System

 Happy Iowa Caucus Day!

I figured today would be as good as any to review my latest disturbing food read (I'm beginning to think there isn't any other kind): Thomas M. Kostigen's The Big Handout: How Government Subsidies and Corporate Welfare Corrupt the World We Live In and Wreak Havoc on Our Food Bill. It's hard to come away from the book encouraged in any way about our political situation or how Iowa, with its lead-off caucus and soybean-corn dedication, tends to hold undue influence, but if you hang on to the end of the post, I do have some good news.

Kostigen paints a detailed, alarming picture of how the whole subsidy system, started during the Depression in good (or at least better) faith, has now become a mighty albatross around taxpayer necks and a source of anti-American ill-will worldwide. Most troubles stem from cheap Corn and Soy, whose subsidized abundance ripples through the Beef, Dairy, Poultry, and Pork industries, not to mention the totally messed-up Energy industry. (Lord, how I hate ethanol!) There are brief stops along the way in the land of Cotton, Steel, Oil, and Gas--equally fascinating and depressing.

Consider a few of the numbers Kostigen throws out there:

  • 71% of food subsidies go to factory farms, with Corn leading the way ($5B), followed by Soy.
  • Subsidized Corn and Soy means cheap agricultural feed for livestock.
  • Feed represents 60% of chicken production cost, and the price of feed has gone down 25% since the introduction of the 1996 Farm Bill. This has led to a consolidation and verticalization of the poultry industry.
    • What Kostigen calls "Big Chicken" can crank out 10,000 chickens every three weeks, in a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse.
    • In comparison, a free-range chicken operation (which may or may not qualify for any subsidies) raises 10,000 chickens per year on 100 acres.
  •  Feed represents 85% of hog production costs. In addition to feed and environmental subsidies (pigs poop 2 to 4 times as much as humans), the government buys up excess pork. According to Tufts University research, industrial concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) receive 13% discounted operating costs over small farmers in free-range environments because of US ag policies. Never mind that hogs in CAFOs are "more likely to be exposed to H1N1 and harbor it continuously" or that CAFOs "may facilitate evolution of novel [viral] strains."
  • Kostigen also had creepy things to say about bovine growth hormone, which has been making dairy more productive since Monsanto received FDA approval for "Prosilac" (rBGH or fbST) in 1993. Since 1970, the number of farms with dairy cows has fallen from 650,000 to 75,000, but milk production has increased.
    • Cows treated with rBGH demonstrate a 50% increase in leg and hoof problems, a greater than 25% increase in mastitis frequency, and reproductive problems like infertility, cystic ovaries, fetal loss, and birth defects. Because of their increased health problems, they receive more antibiotics, contributing to greater antibiotic resistance. Cows receiving rBGH also show higher levels of hormone insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF1, a hormone which survives digestion and enters the human bloodstream. 
    • "Numerous studies now demonstrate that IGF1 is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon." (In some test cases, IGF1 increased the risk of cancer fourfold.) 
    • Monsanto litigated to ban dairy producers using "rBGH-free" label and won, but this ruling is being fought state by state. As you probably realize, in Washington dairy producers can still label "rBGH-free." 
    • Growth hormone is injected into 43% of cows in herds of 500 or more (USDA). In small dairies (<100 cows), the injection rate is less than 10%.
  •  The other item going into cows (and this was news to me) is cottonseed and "gin trash." The average US dairy cow eats 8 lbs of cottonseed, 75% of which is genetically modified. This stuff gets in our system, wrecks soil, and requires lots of pesticides and fertilizer. The CA EPA found the pesticides used on California-grown cotton to be very toxic, seven of which were "probably" cancer-causing, eight caused tumors, and five caused mutations. They were also rated Toxic or Very Toxic to fish, birds or both.

Now, apart from the Cotton biz (subsidized by $5B/yr), these horrors are familiar to us. There are reasons I've been buying grass-fed, free-range, and so on. What I was not aware of was the impact of US farm subsidies on the global food market.

I found Kostigen's discussion of Rice especially heartbreaking. The U.S. accounts for 12% of the world's production, and we export about half of it. Water subsidies and price supports enable American rice to be sold at prices lower than the cost of production. This means, on the global market, we can then undersell other rice-producing countries like Haiti, Ghana, and Honduras. When they impose tariffs to protect their own farmers, the U.S., through the World Bank and IMF, forces them to reduce these. Haiti, in particular, was "encouraged" by the IMF to reduce the rice import tariff from 35% to 3%. As a result, imports tripled and Haitian rice farms lost marketshare. Now 3/4 of rice eaten in Haiti comes from the U.S. That, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The story gets repeated in different countries, with different foods. All of which contributes toward global anti-Americanism. To borrow from the Occupy Movement, to the rest of the world, we are the 1%. We use our money and our might to bully and foster economic dependence.


But I did promise a glimmer of light, so I'll skip over Kostigen's look at fishing subsidies (more depressing stuff) and point out that...drumroll, please...ONE SUBSIDY HAS BEEN ALLOWED TO LAPSE! Yes, Virginia, the thirty-year, $20 billion Ethanol Tax Credit is now history. Glory, hallelujah. The entire New York Times article is worth the read, for its anti-depressant qualities alone. As the article quotes, “The end of this giant subsidy is a win for taxpayers, the environment and people struggling to put food on the table...Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.” If only they could get rid of the stuff altogether, but too many politicians jumped on that bandwagon and it's long out of sight. The reason ethanol producers and mixers didn't put up more of a fight? They were already experiencing a boom market, thank you very much.

So get out there and pick our next presidential candidates, you Iowans. We here in Washington usually don't have much choice by the time it gets around to us. The lesser of two evils, really.

Kostigen makes recommendations, of course. But motivating politicians of either stripe to change the system, or motivating all those recipients of subsidies to give them up for the common good sounds next to impossible, so I'll have to settle for my usual MO: encouraging people, to buy, cook, and eat real food, grown by small family farmers without government handouts or "help" from Monsanto products.