Since Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant maize, no food has been more emblematic of the evolution of American eating habits than corn. That's been true from the sepia-tinged golden age of the Midwestern breadbasket to the present day, where those yellow kernels are lab-engineered and recombinated into a dizzying array of futuristic foodstuffs.
In Mark Kurlansky's new anthology, The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead) — which compiles reportage and recipes from "America Eats," an unfinished venture of the Depression-era WPA Federal Writers' Project — we visit Pop Corn Days in North Loup, Nebraska. There, fairgoers munched from "bushels of popped fluffiness" while watching the procession of the Pop Corn Queen, "heralded by buglers with green capes over their uniforms . . . regal in her robes of lustrous gold satin." We also learn how, across the Midwest, corn was "cultivated for uses in 'johnny-cake,' corn mush, 'big hominy,' ash-cake, corn whisky, corn pone, or the small loaves called 'corn dodgers.' "
Nowadays, though, as we're shown in Robert Kenner's new documentary Food, Inc., we consume corn via high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, di-glycerides, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid, calcium stearate, citrus cloud emulsion, saccharin, sucrose, sorbital, ethyl acetate, ethyl lactate, cellulose, xylital, alpha tocopherol, gluten, polydextrose, inositol, and Fibersol-2. Gives the term "corn-fed" a whole new meaning, eh?
"The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 10,000," notes Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, at the outset of Food, Inc. And not for the better.
The food we eat today is making us fat. It's making us sick. And the vast, government-subsidized system of agribusiness and mechanized corporate food production is inefficient and unsustainable, slowly ruining our environment, our economy, and our culture.
There are few better ways to remind ourselves of what has transpired in just a few decades than to experience Kurlansky's book and Kenner's movie side by side.
The former, as its subtitle puts it, is a "portrait of American food before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food," when what we ate "was seasonal, regional, and traditional."
The latter may as well be subtitled "What the national highway system, chain restaurants, frozen food, corporate meat-packing, omni-available factory-farmed produce, laboratory-engineered flavors, genetically modified crop seeds, artificial growth hormones, and cloned animals mean for the future of the American diet, landscape, and society."
The mass industrialization of food that began mid-20th century promised abundance and cost-efficiency. By some measures, it would seem to have delivered on that promise. Witness the galaxy of processed, packaged snacks on brightly lit display in your supermarket — the average of which, we're told, holds 47,000 different items — where a two-liter bottle of cola costs a buck while a half-gallon of milk costs $2.49.
But Kenner's film is an appetite-killing primer on the myriad hidden costs that make the true prices much, much higher.
Kurlansky — who's previously explored the often surprising significance of particular foodstuffs in such books as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History — learned a lesson while researching that latter book, which traces sodium chloride's role in the rise and fall of economies and empires.
"It's very difficult to grasp the notion of value," he says. "Things we think are valuable and are worth fighting and struggling over could very well be not worth anything. It's pretty arbitrary. That's an important lesson, I think."
Lately we seem finally to be learning that lesson when it comes to our food — realizing that, in the long run, so-called value meals offer precisely the opposite.
Let's not pretend that all those hearty, healthy, home-grown meals in bucolic pre-WWII America were delightful and delicious. The writers compiled in The Food of a Younger Land set out to survey the provinces and pockets of ethnic influence across the lower 48, and sometimes returned having queasily sampled such regional delicacies as Scandinavian lutefisk (a slimy, smelly concoction of codfish cured in lye) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and "prairie oysters" in Oklahoma (the harvesting of which is described in one tour-de-force of dramatic narrative).
Luckily, in this 10th year of the 21st century, "I don't think many people are eating beaver tail," says Kurlansky. "And I hope people aren't eating wildcat and cougar."
The old days had other drawbacks, too: eating local didn't always mean eating fresh. "They were very reliant on canned and preserved food," says Kurlansky of our forebears. "In most of America, there's not a lot of food produced between November and April."
Not to mention that it's unlikely someone from, say, Maine — whose clambakes, game suppers, and hot-buttered rum are all described in the book — would ever get to taste "A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco" (as the title of one chapter describes it).