thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “farm life”

Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn

Trinidad, August 2010

The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.

I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them).  My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.

For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.

Friday Photo: Roses & Work Clothes, Shippensburg

The basement of my parents’ house is an area that my mother does not allow guests to see.  The walls are covered with crumbling horsehair plaster; the floor is cement; the lights are bare-bulb dim.  Here, however, is where my father’s farm clothes hang beside a bouquet of dried roses like a symbol of my parents: worn and warm, smooth and safe, together.

Winter 2009

Winter 2009


Friday Photo: Christmas iCaroling

It’s two days after Christmas, the day that my extended Grove family gets together to exchange gifts wrapped in glittery paper and eat homemade ice cream cake off my grandmother’s Lenox china.  We’ve just finished our traditional supper of potato roll sandwiches, seven-layer salad, Kay & Ray’s potato chips, and homemade Chex mix served buffet-style, right to left, across Grandma’s kitchen counter, and I have just commented to somebody that I can mark my growing up like a timeline by recalling my annual reaction to this 25-year-old menu: the elementary school year I first put mayonnaise on my potato roll sandwich, the high school year during which I abstained from mayonnaise, the college years when I ate everything like normal again.

My mom, the piano teacher, has just sat down at Grandma’s upright piano to play Christmas carols.  One my one, my family puts down their dinner plates and surrounds her to sing, my father with his rich bass, my aunt’s contralto, my two brothers’ bass and tenor, my 90-year-old grandma’s warbling-yet-on-pitch soprano, and the alto and soprano parts that my mother, sister, and I seamlessly trade back and forth like playground candy.  Our voices blend like Brethren-in-Christ memories, smoothing over rough textures and varnished pews.  My immediate family used to sing together in front of the church on Sunday mornings, a fact which I’d almost forgotten, but by my mom’s elbow with my siblings pressed in around a hymnal that predates all of us, I somehow feel that if we were all to rise out of our seats and through the ceiling, our singing could shield us in a world of no sadness like a cord of three strands not easily broken.

I glance over my shoulder to find my boyfriend Jon standing slightly away from the group, his iPhone out, intently studying the screen.  “Who are you texting, hon?” I say, feeling hurt.

Jon glances up at me, surprised.  “I’m following the words,” he says, and then he joins in to the fourth verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” an eager magnificent bass. I turn back around to face the open hymnal before me, a smile playing on my lips as we’re joined by my sister’s fiancé, and I flap my arms to get us all to laugh and sing the chorus a bit louder, lifting all of us into the night.

Friday Photo: Markets Around the World

I am fascinated by stores: sparkling cheap jewelry made to look expensive only in bright lighting, polished plates in geometric shapes, the shelves of spices in the baking aisle, the spines of new books.  I adore entering a Sheetz and twirling amid the Twix bars to my right, and suddenly being distracted by the Chex Mix to my left then realizing that I could buy any flavor of Red Bull that I want.  I don’t even know if Red Bull has flavors, but it doesn’t matter!  It’s all within reach!  Look at the colors!!  Everything’s possible!!!

On this Black Friday, it would seem appropriate to comment that I’m an ideal shopper, except for the fact that I only love looking at stores, not buying the products within them.  In my opinion, a group of people can be best understood through the act of buying and selling, because this action discloses a culture’s needs and priorities, perceived or otherwise.  In Chile, stores selling similar products are located in the same area of the city — a mall of hair salons, an alley of hot dog vendors, a street of antiques — to increase efficiency.  In France, bakeries open early because fresh bread is bought almost daily. In Italy, I’ve heard that it’s bad luck for a street vendor to lose his first sale of the day, so he’s often willing to negotiate for a lower price.  In Trinidad, boiled corn, still in the husk, is available on the side of the highways — you just veer off on the shoulder and roll down your window.  When buying and selling, convenience, need, creativity, and want all come into play.

On Black Friday in 2007, I was stuck on a crowded train between Luxembourg City and Brussels with a woman who was on the phone directing a jewelry purchase in New York.  Today, however, in honor of my friend Kara who posted a similar set of photos on her blog, I post a few photos of markets around the world, where what’s on sale reflects somehow we somehow all live through our consumerism — for better or for worse.

buying breadfruit in Trinidad

shopping district in Lille, France

cheese market in the Netherlands

calves for sale at the Greencastle Livestock Market in Greencastle, Pennsylvania

buying morning newspapers in Santiago, Chile

Friday Photo: Silver-Platter Sauce Chicken

Friday Photo: Childhood on a Platter, 2011

So what’s this colorless Central Pennsylvanian meal doing on my parents’ wedding china?  It’s the meal of my 27th birthday, of course, of brown buttered egg noodles, “sauce” chicken, and freezer corn.

I had requested this same meal for my birthday when I turned eight (or was it nine?), a fact that I only remember because that year I had taken to writing an entire account of my birthday week on a typewriter — epic.  Even though I currently can’t find this diary, I still am fairly certain — just because the very act of just writing it down solidified memories — that my birthday in 1992 (or was it 1993?) was on a Tuesday because on Monday my mom had made pork chops, which look just like “sauce” chicken in the oven.  This fact had distressed me greatly because I thought she had screwed up and was making my birthday meal a day early.

From the moment I heard it frying in the kitchen, “sauce” chicken was one of those dishes that made me exceedingly happy as a child, even happier than Pizza Hut Pizza or homemade hamburgers.  According to my mother, the recipe for “sauce” chicken came from my health-conscious Grandma Charles under the strange misnomer of “BBQ Chicken.”  It consists of chicken thighs rolled in wheat germ, fried, and doused in a homemade sauce of ketchup, mustard, sugar, and Worcestershire sauce.  The dish gained its current name because the crispy wheat germ and ketchup and mustard congeal into this wonderfully clumpy sauce, although now I admit that clearly someone should have given me lessons in writing recipe titles.  (To give you a perspective, “egg stuff” is another family favorite.)

If food displays the cook behind it, my birthday meal indicates humble roots: cornfields, butter browned in a cast-iron skillet, and my formerly-Mennonite grandmother.  But I love it nonetheless, especially when rimmed by fine dishware, a silver platter of a childhood.

“SAUCE” CHICKEN (original email from my mother, dated June 14, 2011)

6 chicken thighs (plus or minus) — skin off, wash and roll in wheat hearts or germ and fry a little in canola oil, both sides.  Place in baking pan and mix together sauce to pour over:

1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
a little Worcestershire sauce

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

A Short History of Feminism and Deviled Eggs

Conformity, September 2011

The foods I learned to cook came in this order:

1) Chocolate whacky cake (a cake made with no milk or eggs)
2) Macaroni and cheese (a version made with uncooked noodles and Farmer’s cheese)
3) Salmon cakes (because you needed something to eat with the mac and cheese, duh)
4) Deviled eggs (because Samantha Parkington ate them)
5) Chocolate peanut buddy bars
6) Zucchini cake

#4, Deviled Eggs, were my favorite on this list.  My mom tells me that I used to jump at the chance of making them for every family reunion and church potluck.  I kind of remember this, although I remember more loving the pleasurable delicate feel of hard-boiled whites beneath my fingers, and the disappointment I felt for not owning one of those Tupperware deviled egg carrying trays to display the finished eggs in.  You know, the tray with little egg-sized gorges molded into the plastic so the eggs wouldn’t roll around and smash up your handwork.  Those things were rad.

This Labor Day, I made deviled eggs for the first time since leaving for college–where I had had no devils or eggs or community picnics of which to speak.  In the kitchen of some friends, I took out a Tupperware of eggs that I’d hard-boiled and expertly shelled, and I halved them with a steak knife with childlike solemnity.  My fingers carefully separated the yokes from the delicate whites in the way I used to love, and my thumbs mashed and mixed and spooned the filling back in.  I piled the finished eggs on a plate and presented them to the group with supreme six-year-old pride.

No one ate any for two hours.

I asked myself: Had I committed a culinary faux pas?  Was I the only one who still liked these things?  Maybe deviled eggs were actually an antiquated dish, as unappetizing to most modern 20-somethings as a mold filled with lime Jell-O and fruit cocktail.  I fretted and dumped a can of chopped green olives over the top, which only made the eggs look stuck with green alien eyes.  I pushed the eggs into plain view next to my friend’s taco dip, and I pouted when my boyfriend Jon asked me to please put the eggs back in the fridge; no one was ready for them.


“Deviled eggs are an old, old dish,” said my Grandma Grove.  I had approached her to ask if she had made deviled eggs when she was younger in an attempt to determine how old the idea really was (she had owned a Tupperware deviled egg carrier and therefore I trusted her opinion). She responded in the same way my memory served me: “Yes, yes, we always made deviled eggs for potlucks and church picnics.”

According to some sources, the practice of boiling eggs and removing their yolks was introduced by the Romans, and deviled eggs appeared pretty regularly in cookbooks by the 17th century.  Multiple other cultures have their own version, like the Germans, who are said to make their deviled eggs with anchovies or capers, or the French, who choose pepper and parsley.  As for me, when I was younger, the filling didn’t matter; the presence of any kind of deviled egg at a picnic was simply, in my mind, indispensable, and, though I didn’t realize it, helping to define a social expectation.

Looking further, these eggs that regularly appeared at public suppers also help to characterize the women who continued, decade after decade, to make them. Deviled eggs are an attempt at elegance using a common household item. At one time, could a woman have been judged by her ability to make a good set of deviled eggs–her ability to spin something graceful out of the mundane–as a sign of her readiness to run a household, in the same way that my Grandma Grove once told me, beaming, that once I could roll a pie crust, I’d be ready for a man?

The history of food draws varying portraits of women’s roles as providers, entertainers, caregivers, and trophies, depending on the geography and generation.  My list of foods above, for example, betrays Mennonite cookbooks and one-pot wonders, garden vegetables and stale powdery spices, Saltine crackers and canned fish, as well as the women who cooked this food: probably mothers with several children working off tight budgets with little room for creativity, women made sturdy through their resourcefulness.

In the introductory to the anniversary edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2001), Julia Child’s depiction of the cooking atmosphere of the 1960’s helps define the women in a different way:

“I remember aspics.  Jellied madrilene was a favorite fancy soup of the period, a beef consommé flavored with fresh tomato and topped with a splash of whipped cream–that was before sour cream came upon us.  Melba toast was a standard accompaniment to the soup at ladies’ luncheons–and there were many of them then because running a household rather than having a career gave many women the leisure time.  These carefully orchestrated meals often featured a large molded ring of tomato aspic, its center filled with chicken, crab, or lobster salad” (vii).

Her words — “careful,” “leisure,” and “luncheon” — outline a different shape of feminism, one in which women who have too much time on their hands and little other options, attempting perfection and self-definition through the cuisine they could replicate.


In recent years, deviled eggs have seen a resurgence onto upscale menus like the Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, and today, the requirement of a woman to be a proficient cook is less obvious due to practical reasons.  Most Americans spend around 5.7% of their budget on the cost of food as apposed to 15% in the 1970s and upwards to 40% in some developing countries, meaning that I don’t have to spend days after school making pickles or freezing sweet corn to account for the financial difference.

Village Whiskey, Philadelphia, September 2011

I still hear rumors about “Doadi Rockwell’s pizza” and “Melinda Hoey’s cheesecake” and “Anna Grove’s cherry pie,” but they seem to mark a different trend, or at least, I hope they do: one of pride that shows that food does really mark a legacy, and the people who make them, female or not, can be defined, like an artist, by their creation.

At the end of the Labor Day picnic, my deviled eggs were eaten–all of them.  I was pleased, because in the end, that is the purpose of food anyway: nourishment, giving, sharing, and, occasionally, an excuse to break free.  Yet as I ate my own deviled eggs, I was wondering if any woman in my past had refused to cook for a social gathering, just for spite, and I wondered about what kind of women she would have been.

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