The Story of Corn

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Like its subject, The Story of Corn is a unique hybrid, drawing upon history and mythology, science and art, anecdote and image, personal narrative and epic, to tell the extraordinary story of the grain that built the New World. Indeed, corn transformed the way the whole world eats, providing both a hardy, inexpensive alternative to rice or wheat and cheap fodder for livestock. And, with its mercurial genetic structure, it found its way into everything from explosives to embalming fluid. As Fussell writes, “Corn made the whole world kin.”

But the story of corn is essentially an American saga, entwining the histories–and often clashing worldviews–of the indigenous peoples who first cultivated the grain and the European conquerors who appropriated and then propagated it around the globe. With characteristic wit and passion, Fussell explores its roles as food and fetish, crop and commodity, to the peoples who for seven centuries have planted, consumed, worshiped, processed, and profited from it. If corn makes the whole world kin, in Fussell’s eloquent account it also reveals the inherent tragedy of our tribalism.


From Publishers Weekly
Fussell ( Food in Good Season ) documents the history of corn on many levels in this well-researched book. As food, fertility symbol, genetic marvel, and subject of ancient myths, corn is one of the oldest food staples and a truly American food source. And because the author covers so much material, it’s best to approach The Story of Corn bit by bit to avoid being overwhelmed. While it’s fun to read about the history of popcorn (popcorn poppers dating back to A.D. 100 have been found in Peru), it’s downright fascinating to read about what corn meant to native North and South Americans. Apparently corn was used in everything from funerals to birth rituals; corn images are embedded in the Hopi language. Fussell even tracked down a retired moonshiner to find out how corn was used to make corn whiskey and its more socially acceptable cousins, bourbon and Peruvian chicha . The author, descended from Nebraska farmers for whom corn was a mainstay, weaves her family’s history into the larger saga. And along the way, she unfortunately consorts with some rather highfalutinok language (“The migration of my ancestors was across continents, up and away from the earth navel of fallen man. My own journey had been down . . . into the darkness of seeds and roots to find my dead mother and her mothers . . . in the womb not of Eden but of Mother Earth”). But the volume is otherwise so absorbing and well written that she’s easily forgiven. Photos not seen by PW.

From Library Journal
Like a modern variety of Zea mays , this book is a sophisticated hybrid, a skillful blend of history, science, art, and anthropology. Written in a lively and nontechnical style, with 150 photographs and 100 line drawings, it is an accessible, handsome volume. Fussell, food journalist, historian of foodways, and author of cookbooks, including the highly recommended Food in Good Season ( LJ 9/15/88), is known as a likeable and knowledgeable writer. These qualities are evident in this tour de force about corn, covering every aspect of this important commodity and offering an extensive bibliography. Anyone reading all or a substantial portion of this book will never pass a cornfield again in quite the same way. Recommended.
– Richard Shotwell, Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Mass.

From Kirkus Reviews
Fussell (Food in Good Season, 1988, etc.) has steeped herself in corn lore and emerged with this encyclopedic entry on that sustaining American grain in myth, ritual, history, science and technology, breeding and cultivation, industry, processing, and cookery (not recipes, just a survey)–with a chapter on corn whiskey thrown in and an interweaving of personal root-claiming by way of a Nebraska grandfather. Fussell has clearly done a good deal of research and a lot of traveling–peering over a precipice at Machu Picchu, descending into a restored ceremonial kiva of the Anasazi people in New Mexico, visiting the sole surviving corn palace from the Midwest boosters’ glory days of a century ago–but her prose fails to vivify the scenes she’s visited, and, without any argument or added insights, her research reports have a secondhand, summarizing quality. Still, the labor and immersion are evident, and libraries should find uses for Fussell’s odd compilation.

“Written in a lively and nontechnical style.” — Library Journal

“The Story of Corn is a fascinating read.” (The Washington Times )

” . . . a fascinating read. Look for the book and dive in.” (Mollie Katzen, Tribune Media Services )

“The fascinating story of corn is told in a wonderfully engaging book by Betty Fussell, a food historian.” ( )

“Fussell tells a fascinating, thoroughly researched and comprehensive story of the centrality of corn to American culture.” (Material Culture )

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