Friday, August 3, 2012

In my life outside the kitchen, I'm a writer with a few history degrees, plugging away at history textbooks and reference books while working on an epic fantasy trilogy set in the Progressive Era. I read a lot, is what I'm getting at. I emphasize the role of food in history and history in food in this blog sometimes, and I think you can tell a pretty long story talking about almost any meal. There are a few common themes in my thinking about food and history - the role of cultural contact and global trade in influencing cooking habits, the fairly recent origin of "traditional" foods, the myth that there is no American cuisine ... come to think of it, all of these are variations on a discussion of authenticity in food, which I guess makes sense.

But one of the food matters I most often write about professionally, just because I so often get assignments that deal with prehistory and the dawn of civilization, is grain.

Grain is the basis of civilization. That's not an exaggeration or a metaphor. Cultivating grains - wheat, barley, millet, rice - was the single action that turned human groups from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to city-dwellers. You grow grain, you can store it in a granary without having to salt it, smoke it, pickle it, or dry it. It has minerals, it has a little protein, it has starch for calories - you can get by on much less meat and vegetables when you use them to supplement a grain diet, and you can turn just about any grain into a porridge suitable for infants and sick people, which is an attribute the value of which might be difficult to understand in a modern developed nation.

This is a photo of a pumpkin because people like blog posts that are broken up by photos.

You plant your grain, you build a hut nearby to sleep in, you harvest it, and you're okay for the winter. Pretty soon you've figured out bread, which uses wild yeast to transform pounded grain into a versatile foodstuff, and beer, which is what happens when bread gets wet enough long enough. It takes less work to support a village on a grain-dependent diet than on hunting and gathering, so you have all this available labor, which leads to tool-making, religion, mathematics, art, and engineering.

When you have enough surplus grain, you can use it as livestock feed, which is kind of a weird development in the history of raising animals: the purpose, the utility, of a cow or sheep to a human society is that it takes the energy of grass and turns it into something humans can consume - milk or meat. Humans can't digest grass, but ruminants - cattle, sheep, goats, camels, buffalo, moose, deer, llamas, all of which have been raised for this purpose by one human civilization or another - possess a compartmentalized stomach that breaks down cellulose into fatty acids. (The main advantage of livestock feed - long before the relevant advantage was that it let you raise enormous numbers of animals in a very small space - is that it lets you feed livestock in a cold climate without migrating with them to a southern grassy area. So, again: we built this city on rock and rye.) The modern meat industry is associated with disgusting excesses, horrific practices, and egregious wastes of resources, but the innovation of raising animals for meat was an almost Eulerian feat of beauty: the land provides us with numerous forms of plant energy; we tend and cultivate those we can consume, and harvest them directly; we graze animals on those we cannot consume, and harvest them indirectly. Pretty remarkable given that our meat-eating originated as a scavenging behavior, as we munched on what the lions left behind.

This centrality of grain to the origins of nearly every human civilization is still obvious today - one of the first things you notice in a new cuisine is the type of grain culture it comes from. Some are rice cultures, like in much of Asia or South Carolina. Some are wheat cultures, like in much of Europe, or potato cultures, like in Peru.

We are coming to the point.

You also have corn cultures, which gets interesting. Corn is indigenous to the New World, and the corn cultures which are likewise indigenous are nixtamalized corn cultures. Nixtamalization is a process that makes corn easier to digest and converts its niacin to free niacin, which the body can absorb; without these innovations, a chronic lack of niacin can lead to the malnutrition condition pellagra. Nixtamalized corn products include masa and hominy, and therefore tamales, tortillas, etc - the staple grains of Mexican cooking. In the grits belt - the part of the American South where corn is the staple starch - the corn used for grits was commonly nixtamalized (I don't know if it was a universal practice) in the antebellum era, and less commonly after that, which is why southerners faced a pellagra epidemic at the turn of the century, when more southerners lived on corn, molasses, and salt pork than didn't. (And clay. Clay eating was common because it answered the body's need for iron.) The corn used for cornmeal, corn mush, sausage filler, and more industrial products like corn syrup or corn starch is not nixtamalized; neither, obviously, is corn eaten in kernel form, whether on the cob or from the can.

We are even closer to the point.
This is me at Disney World in 1981.

Grain culture has an impact on alcohol culture, because fermentation originated as a method of preserving nutrients, especially in cold climates. Anyone who insisted on trying a can of Campbell's Scotch Broth soup as a kid will be unsurprised to think of Scotland as a barley culture, and Scotch whisky reflects that - barley grains are germinated, which turns starch into sugar, which is fermented into a sort of beer, which is then distilled into whisky. (Beer is low enough in alcohol that it won't keep as long as distilled liquor, which is virtually impervious to anything but evaporation and spillage; hops added to beer act as a preservative. Wine doesn't have this problem because it's made with fruit, which is naturally high in sugar, resulting in a higher-alcohol final product.)

But barley isn't a staple crop in the New World, and whiskey makers here turned to ... corn.  Despite the rye resurgence, which only slightly impacts the mid-shelf price point and is mostly a top-shelf phenomenon, American whiskey is made with corn, supplemented with wheat (smooth and sweet) and rye (spicy).  Thankfully, pellagra is a non-issue with corn whiskey, because if you were to try to subsist on it you would run into larger problems much more swiftly than you could cultivate a niacin deficiency. This relationship between traditional grains and distilling is why American whiskey has predominantly been made in the South (and the historical "western frontier," i.e. western Pennsylvania - home of the Whiskey Rebellion - New York State, the Midwest, etc) while the northeast made rum from triangle-trade molasses.


This is my cat playing with a dog in 1991.


This year we face a ridiculously severe and widespread drought, the sort that would be much more on your mind if the last seventy years had not distanced us so greatly from the processes of food production. As much as I think corn subsidies are destructive - they make corn syrup a cheaper ingredient for industrial food production than sugar, which itself is already cheaper than molasses, which was once a mineral-rich staple food for the poor because it's an accident of sugar production; they divert resources from other crops; they encourage overuse of corn syrup in numerous food products that never used to have added sweeteners; and they are exploited primarily by large businesses that don't need them, rather than the small farmers they were introduced to preserve - we whiskey drinkers will benefit from them as they cushion the impact of the impending corn shortage that will result from this summer (and many hot summers to come).

We'll benefit a tiny bit, anyway. Unfortunately, this corn shortage comes at a time when there is already a bourbon shortage. That second shortage was inevitable: interest in whiskey has increased sharply in the last decade, and whiskey is an aged product, which means it's risky to ramp up production (which is inherently long-term) in response to what could have been a short-term spike in demand. By the time it became clear the increase in demand was long-term, supplies of aged bourbon were running low. It will take time to catch up to that, and a shortage of corn makes it much more difficult and much more expensive to do so.

So - and this is the point - celebrate your corn culture, buy a bottle of $25 whiskey before it's a bottle of $35 whiskey, add a couple ice cubes, some bitters, a couple Montmorency cherries, and some sugar, and try to cool off.


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