Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Benjamin Harrison and the American Corn Belt

Now please don't tell People magazine or TMZ, but Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline were reportedlty "corn-addicts," which isn’t surprising since they were born in Ohio and lived for many years in Indiana, two of the states that make up the American Corn-Belt, which produces more than half of the corn grown each year in the United States.

The other states that make up the Corn-Belt include Iowa and Illinois and parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Missouri. Experts say that the warm nights, hot days, and well-distributed rainfall of the region during the growing season are ideal conditions for raising this highly versatile vegetable.

And did you know that more than half of the corn grown in the United States is used to feed cattle, sheep, chickens, hogs and other livestock? The rest is used to produce an astonishingly wide array of consumer foods and products, including ketchup, crayons, soap, detergent, cough syrup, marshmallows, graham crackers, pancake mix, chewing gum, soft drinks, toothpaste, salad dressings, breakfast cereals, licorice, disposable diapers, shoe polish, paint, peanut butter, and, of course, popcorn.

Although the popcorn that Harrison ate was nothing like the microwavable kind we are familiar with today, biographers say that he was fond of such traditional midwestern dishes as Corn Muffins, Stewed Corn, and Green-Corn Fritters. And being the "corn-addict" that he was, he surely would have enjoyed this delicious recipe for Corn Chowder from the Food Network's Paula Dean:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 small onion, diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 small celery stalk, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups white corn kernels, fresh or frozen
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups half-and-half
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt 1 stick of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and saute for 2 minutes. Add the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook until the roux is lightly browned; set aside to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, combine the corn and chicken stock in another saucepan, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the boiling stock with the corn (a little at a time) into the saucepan with the roux, whisking briskly so it doesn't lump. Return the skillet to the heat and bring to a boil. The mixture should become very thick.

In a small saucepan, gently heat the half-and-half; stir it into the thick corn mixture. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper, to taste. Just before serving, cut the remaining stick of butter into large chunks. Add it to enrich the soup, stirring until the butter melts.

FOOD FACT: Popcorn's ability to "pop" lies in the fact that corn kernels contain a tiny amount of water stored in a circle of soft starch inside a hard outer casing. When heated to a high enough temperature, the water expands which exerts an increasing amount of pressure until the outer casing eventually gives way and the kernels explode, or “pop,” allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernels inside out!

Credit: Oil Portrait of Benjamin Harrison (1895), Eastman Johnson, White House Historical Association (White House Collection)