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LECTURE : Author's New Book Gets to the Kernel of American Vegetable : Lend writer an ear and you may learn everything you wanted to know about corn, and also have a chance to eat it lots of ways.

October 20, 1994|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Depending upon the dreamer, an ideal single-course meal might include one of any number of things. But corn? Probably not even in the Top 100. Corn sounds about as exciting as the yawning contest no one had the strength to enter at the Valium convention.

Betty Fussell, who wrote "The Story of Corn," and makes the grain as exciting as it gets, disagrees. She will give a slide and lecture presentation at the Monday meeting of the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food.

Getting in the spirit of the occasion will be the San Ysidro Ranch's executive chef, Gerard Thompson, who will concoct a four-course, all-corn menu, which is definitely not for the corn dog and Diet Pepsi people. The meal will include items such as polenta ravioli in a sweet corn broth, barbecued duck tostadas with corn cream and smoked salmon, and corn fritters. No corn liquor this time, but plenty of wine.

Fussell's book, heavier than a bushel of corn, came out in 1992 and is in its sixth printing. It tells us that civilization on the Western Hemisphere was built not on greed or even concrete, but on corn. And Fussell is no Nebraska Cornhusker with delusions of grandeur, she's a native Californian relocated to New York. She also has a doctorate in English Literature and a growing reputation as a culinary historian.

And while her book may be without dinosaurs, serial killers, or Nazis, "The Story of Corn" does have plenty of the other stuff contemporary Americans seem to crave--sex, violence, whiskey, human sacrifice, cannibalism, football, and yes, smut.

"I was trying to find a distinctive American cuisine, and the unifying thread was corn," said the writer during a recent phone interview. "It opened a virtual Pandora's Box. It's been the basis of our agribusiness since the 1850s."

Fussell's book is a cornucopia of corn facts, and then some. It seems to be in everything but one's thoughts, though it is in Garrison Keillor's: "People have tried and tried, but sex is not better than sweet corn," he is quoted in the book. Woebegone, indeed.

"Only 1% of the corn grown is used for human consumption; 99% goes for something else," said Fussell. "If the corn silos were destroyed, the whole industrial machine would break down. Most corn is used for fodder or industrial starch."

Want corn numbers besides the score of the Nebraska game? The 1% translates into three pounds of corn per person per day. And further, one bushel of corn translates into 15 pounds of retail beef, 26 pounds of pork, and 37 pounds of poultry. Corn oil or corn syrup is in everything from paint to processed foods to rubber tires to embalming fluid. Cornstarch can be found in aspirin, aluminum, sponges and all dehydrated, powdered or granulated foods. There's even corn in the 212-area code that Fussell calls home.

"Corn is everywhere. It's grown on Long Island and New Jersey," she said. "Many people don't know that China is the second-largest producer of corn in the world. Conditions in Manchuria are similar to those in our own Corn Belt. Corn is the most hybridized of any major plant in the world, and it can grow in more places than any other plant in the world. It can grow in the polar regions to the hottest rain forest. Wheat or rice won't do that."

The chapter on the sex life of corn probably won't make it to the Playboy Channel, but corn did begin as a fun plant. Mumuchitl, parched corn, fluffed maize or popcorn was the first corn--yes, even older than Orville Redenbacher. Today, the average American consumes 56 quarts of popcorn each year.

"Corn originated in the Yucatan Peninsula and the surrounding rain forests. It's older than rice and almost as old as wheat. Corn was being planted almost 8,000 years ago. It tells us who we are and where we came from," Fussell said.

Since the plant grows everywhere, such diverse locations as Turkey, China, India and Africa claim corn as a native. Corn has virtually thousands of different names depending upon the society and which of the more than 8,000 varieties is being discussed.

Fussell's book and slide show (once presented at the Smithsonian Institute) also touch upon the fun side of corn, relating in detail the history of Cracker Jack, commercial popcorn companies, the birth of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and also Fritos.

She discusses hominy, tortillas, tamales, corncob pipes, Peruvian corn beer, whiskey, farm machinery, the rise of corn in the Corn Belt, and corn smut, which probably needs a new name. It will be on the menu as huitlacoche , which is a black-blue fungus akin to a mushroom.

According to the author, there's no rival out there trying to steal her thunder by writing a history of peas or beans, and there can't be much more to say about corn. Fussell's next book will deal with the contentious struggle among vegetarians and carnivores.

"The trouble with doing "The Story of Corn," she said, "is that there can be no "Son of Corn."

Details

* WHAT: "The Story of Corn," a lecture and dinner.

* WHERE: San Ysidro Ranch's Stonehouse, 900 San Ysidro Lane, Montecito.

* WHEN: Monday, 6:30 p.m.

* COST: $65 for AIWF members, $75 for non-members.

* CALL: 966-4426

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