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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Evans

“Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you”*…

With harvest season nigh, the corn should be “as high as an elephant’s eye,” as the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song has it. Time to get that water boiling for the corn on the cob?

Sure. But most of the corn we consume isn’t on the cob, in a can, or frozen. Sweet corn is actually less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Popcorn, our third standard type of corn, is also less than 1 percent of the American corn crop.

Educators Renee Clary and James Wandersee have explored the history of corn, from the first domestication of maize about 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn.”

According to Clary and Wandersee, we should be flush with the hundreds of varieties of corn crafted by human selection over the centuries. But the United States, the world’s largest corn producer, almost exclusively grows field corn, which is also known as dent corn, or, in the futures markets, “commodity corn.” It is not delicious with butter and salt.

Commodity corn is a bit magical, however, because it can be transformed into a plethora of products. Food is still a big part of the corn equation, but indirectly. Meat, for example, is actually transmuted corn: Four-tenths of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed chicken, pigs, and cattle. And since cattle evolved as grass eaters, they have to be dosed with antibiotics because corn isn’t healthy for them.

Many processed foods are built on the back of corn. High-fructose corn syrup, much cheaper than sugar, is the most obvious of these corn-based ingredients in our food system…

Clary and Wandersee have their students survey what’s in their home pantries. There’s a lot of corn hidden in food labels. Caramel color, lecithin, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch? Corn. The same with ascorbic acid, lysine, dextrose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, maltose, maltodextrin, and MSG. Xanthan gum? Well, there’s no such thing as a xanthan gum tree.

But the corn story is even more complicated. Corn can be chemically manipulated into all sorts of unexpected uses. There’s ethanol, for instance, which is basically alcohol used as a fuel supplement.

You’ll also find corn used in the production of antibiotics; aspirin; books; charcoal briquettes; cosmetics; crayons; disposable diapers; drywall; dyes and inks; fireworks; glues; paper, and plastics. The spray cleaner Windex has at least five corn-derived components. Spark plugs, toothpaste, batteries, and running shoes can all be made with things that started out as corn, in a field, under the sun. In 2001, Goodyear introduced tires made with a starch-based filler made from corn. DuPont naturally has a corn-based synthetic fiber.

While we’re at it, Stephen King’s 1977 story “Children of the Corn” gave rise to a movie franchise starting in 1984, and there’s a new Children of the Corn movie scheduled for release next year. Corny as horror movies can be, we apparently can’t get enough of them—or of corn itself.

… all of which goes to show why, as Michael Pollan says “farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more [corn].” Indeed, corn is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas; 13 billion bushels of corn are grown in the United States alone each year (on 91.7 million acres, the largest crop in the U.S.).

The history of corn, from the domestication of maize 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn,” to teach about biodiversity… and its lack: “Corn is everywhere!

* Michael Pollan

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As we give a shuck, we might send artificially-sweetened birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755. An engineer and one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States, he was a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling, and steam power. He created the first continuous production line (the first fully automated industrial process), the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first (albeit crude) amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

But given the subject of today’s post, we might note that he also created the automatic corn mill.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Baking is therapy”*…

 

Royal Baking Powder Exhibit at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876. Note the “Absolutely Pure” tagline.

How much thought have you, over the course of your entire life, given to the subject of baking powder? Personally I can say perhaps 30 minutes—that is, until I noticed the existence of food historian Linda Civitello’s Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking. Sorry; come again?

This humble kitchen staple, not infrequently confused with baking soda and practically invisible, is apparently responsible for the fact you don’t have to spend all damn day making bread. Civitello argues that the invention of baking powder was a game-changer, a wildly labor-saving creation that frequently eliminated the necessity of maintaining your own little cache of yeast and made it possible to create all sorts of delicious goodies, from fluffy modern biscuits to birthday cake. Before baking powder, “You’re talking upwards of 12 hours of rising, usually more like 24 hours,” Jessica Carbone, a scholar in the National Museum of American History’s Food History Project, told Smithsonian magazine. Women spent the 19th century learning to use the stuff; cookbooks frequently offered recipes with and without.

But the market was also fiercely contested. Different companies had slightly different variations on a substance that did basically the same thing, leaving them to compete via other means. And they certainly did. Royal Baking Powder, which used cream of tartar, took the tagline “Absolutely Pure,” meant as an indictment of powders made with alum. The company played on consumer fears of adulterated food, Baking Powder Wars recounts, even lobbying to have alum varieties banned. And believe it or not, in Missouri, they succeeded—via bribery in the state Senate, according to the book. When the era’s muckrakers found out, it erupted into an enormous scandal…

The fascinating– and vicious– history of a kitchen staple: “Who Knew? The History of Baking Powder Is Incredibly Dramatic.”

* Paul Hollywood

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As we pop it into the oven, we might send finely-sifted birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755.  An inventor, engineer and businessman, he was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States– a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling and steam power (for the lattermost of which, he is often referred to as “the American Watt”).

But before he turned to steam, Evans designed the first automatic flour mill.  He replaced labor-intensive grist mills with a mechanism in which grain moved automatically through a series of five machines to deliver flour packed in barrels at the end.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

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