Friday, October 29, 2010

Corn-y Halloween!

Chicomecoatl,  Aztec Corn Goddess

Happy Halloween 2010!

The meaning and practice of this ancient holiday has changed drastically over the 2000-years-plus of its existence -- but there is something about the fall festival that's irresistible. Maybe it's the weakening of the sun, the falling leaves, or the weird combination of death and sweetness that calls on those of us in the species Homo sapiens sapiens to take to the darkness and celebrate our own dark side.

The roots of Halloween grow in the British Isles and northern France, the ancestral homeland of the Celts, who also brought us Stonehenge and the Druids (good name for a rock group). In the Celtic calendar, the harvest signified the end of the year, and fell during late October, according to our calendar. The fields were cleared and the stubble was piled up. People extinguished the flames in the family fireplace, and everyone came out to the fields to burn off the old stubble, tell fortunes, feast and otherwise celebrate the old year, a festival known as Samhain. At the end of Samhain, everyone lighted torches from the now-dying bonfires and took them home to re-light their home fires. 

After dark, things got creepy, because the old year ended at sunset. The new year wouldn't start until the dawning of a new day - at sunrise the next morning. During the hours betwixt dark and dawn, the boundaries between the world of the dead and that of the living were blurred. That meant the dead were free to roam the land. The dead were a hungry bunch and seemed to prefer sweet foods. Back then, that meant apples and other fall fruits. People dressed up like the dead -- like skeletons, ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, so that they could fit in with all the dead people wandering around looking for mischief. People carved special lanterns with scary faces to help their disguises. These jack-o-lanterns were usually carved from turnips. Pumpkins came later, from a New World that the Celts didn't know about. 

Halloween is still celebrated in the old Celtic lands, but it's not that big a deal. No, Halloween has reached its zenith in America, where it is a secular event that celebrates our unique way of mixing and mashing cultures into new forms. I already mentioned replacing turnips for jack-o-lanterns with the much superior pumpkin. Consider corn, more accurately called "maize".

Betty Fussell, American Corn Goddess
Corn is the basis of all American cuisine. If you doubt that statement, I suggest you read The Story of Corn, by the distinguished food writer Betty Fussell.  Maize was domesticated by the Aztecs at least 8,000 years ago, in what is now southern Mexico. Maize spread quickly throughout North America and into South America. By the time the European settlers arrived, most Native Americans had stopped hunter-gathering and switched to growing maize and other crops, including beans, squash, chile peppers and tomatoes. Pumpkins are a type of squash.

Settlers from the old Celtic lands brought their Halloween traditions, such as carving jack-o-lanterns and dressing in scary costumes and wandering around in the night trick-and-treating. But corn -- and the corn harvest -- coincided time wise, and became part of the fall celebration, hence Indian corn was used as a decoration and popcorn balls quickly became a Halloween treat.

Enter that very special and distinctively American sweet, candy corn. Now candy corn was invented in the 1880's by a German candy maker who had immigrated to the US and ended up living in Illinois, surrounded by cornfields. Of course, in those years, most Americans lived on farms or in small towns. They got a kick out of the marzipan-like candy that looked like corn. The big sensation in candy corn was that every kernel had three colors! The inventor had figured out a way to use corn starch (!) to keep the sections of hot sugar syrup separate as they cooled. So there is real corn in candy corn. What a sensation!

These days, we take a ho-hum attitude toward candy corn here in the US. But in some parts of the world, it's special. One of my favorite food bloggers, who goes by the mono-name, Adrienne, is an anthropologist-turned-writer in London, England.  She is fascinated by those American foods, popcorn and candy corn, and recently posted an article in her witty blog, Coffee in a Teacup.  She also developed a recipe that combines popcorn and candy corn. Here it is, for your Halloween enjoyment. Even if you don't try to make it, at least read her description of making popcorn - something we Americans take for granted.

Candy Corn and Candied Corn (adapted from Cooking Light)

¼ cup butter
8 cups popcorn (I did mine on the stove to make it slightly healthier but microwaved is fine too)
8-10oz/ 200-300g marshmallows
a good sprinkling of salt
1 cup+ candy corn


Make your popcorn.  I made mine by coating a medium sized pot with sunflower oil and heating it over the stove, making sure to coat the entire bottom and onto the sides.  Then add 100g corn maize kernels and cover with a lid, lightly shaking the pot from side to side.  Continue to shake the pot while the corn pops (you can hear it- it's very exciting!) - this not only helps the unpopped kernels to cook, but also keeps the freshly popped corn from burning.  You know the corn is popped when you can no longer hear or feel many raw kernels, and when there is a lull of 5 or more seconds.  Transfer your popcorn to a large bowl and sprinkle generously with salt.  Next add your candy corn to the bowl, taking care not to let them all sink to the bottom.  You'll want them spread evenly throughout your mix if possible.

In a small saucepan, melt your butter and marshmallows with a dash of salt over a low flame, stirring periodically as it begins to melt.  Do not allow it to bubble.  Once fully melted remove from heat and pour the melted mixture over your popcorn.  Mix thoroughly trying to evenly coat all of the corn.  Let cool for 5 minutes.

Line a baking tray (or two) with grease proof paper.  When your mixture has cooled, spray your hands with cooking spray first, then take a handful and squeeze the mixture together to form balls slightly smaller than tennis balls.  The marshmallows will work as glue allowing you to press tightly to form compact balls.  You may have to respray your hands every couple times, as the mixture is incredibly sticky!  Leave to dry/set on the baking tray for 30 minutes or so.  Then wrap the balls individually in clingfilm and give away as soon as possible (they probably will only keep for about 3 days or so) to anyone in need of a bit of Halloween cheer, perhaps reminding them about good dental hygiene as these things will certainly stick in your teeth... in a good way of course!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coca-Cola: the Controversy Continues

Mural in Guatemala, where Coke has been accused of union violence

ATLANTA - Atlanta was destroyed in the Civil War, and the mere fact that it came back stronger than ever is amazing, considering that other places simply disappeared. If you ever take a ride on quiet country highways in Georgia and South Carolina, stop at the historical markers that stand at places in the road where there is nothing to see but a vacant field -- sometimes an old wooden church is all that remains, sometimes a few scattered chimneys. Those historical markers tell the tale of towns that once stood there. A few months ago, the Culinary Historians of Atlanta had a picnic where the thriving town of Etowah once churned. Now it's a lakeside recreation area.  Nothing is left but the chimney from the old pig iron furnace that was the town's main industry.

But Atlanta was different.  One of the things that helped Atlanta's economy was the invention of an elixir called Coca-Cola. A pharmacist named John Pemberton first concocted the stuff in 1886. The company that was created to mass market the drink, which originally contained cocaine (the "coca" in "Coca-Cola") aggressively pursued profits, which was a good thing in the impoverished South. It made many families wealthy. They, in turn, donated dividends and even Coke stock to local institutions, which still benefit from the generosity the company shows to its shareholders. Some people even claim that Coca-Cola saved Atlanta single-handedly.

The Coca-Cola Company may be good to its executives and shareholders, but there is another side to the story. It has been accused of making Americans fat (the company invented high-fructose corn syrup in the 1980's), of polluting the water in Third World Countries, and of sanctioning acts of violence against workers trying to form unions in developing economies.

Now there's yet another in a long line of books about the company that accuses it of the worst crimes imaginable, including murder. Here is a link to a book review from Briefly, the reviewer, Daniel Fromson, who is also the producer of The Atlantic's food channel, states that the book is interesting and very readable. He also warns, however, that it is a little one-sided, against the corporate giant. 

The book is titled, The Coke Machine: the Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink. The author is Michael Blanding, a political writer who specializes in political exposes and travel.

The story of Coca-Cola and other giant profiteers that sell the food we rely on for health is informative to the culinary historian, in that the way people eat these days has changed from the times when people grew their own foodstuffs or purchased foods directly from farmers or small bakers. It is vital that we, as food-loving bipeds, stay informed so that every time we enter a supermarket we can make intelligent food-purchasing decisions.