Prophecy of the Corn

Forty years ago, Stephen King published his short story, “Children of the Corn.”  I hate the film versions, but I truly love this story and I love teaching this story out of our old beat-up copies of Nightshift.  A few years ago, as I was preparing the materials to teach it, I was also into heavy revisions of my book, Ditching the Drive-Thru.  I had a sudden realization that Stephen King was some kind of prophet because due to our current food system, we all had become Children of the Corn.

Part of why I love to teach this story is that it is very tightly written, as we say in the Creative Writing arena.  That means that each moment of the story is directly connected to something else.  For example, when the story opens, Burt, the protagonist, is turning the volume on the radio way up so he doesn’t have to listen to his wife.  It is a small gesture that characterizes him, but also is a metaphor for what is wrong in their marriage – they don’t/won’t listen to one another, and foreshadows the antagonistic stubbornness that is his undoing.

Another thing I really like about the story is how King is able to set the mood.  If you have never driven through miles and miles of corn, you might not think this is creepy.  But growing up in Southern New Jersey where there were plenty of farms growing some really fine sweet corn, miles and miles of it, I got that creepiness.  Especially at night, when the headlights of my car showed nothing but two lanes of blacktop walled on either side by tall shadowy corn.

About a year ago, I started running again.  I have this hate-hate-oh-OK-maybe-not-hate relationship with running.  I always dread it before I start, but once I get going, I don’t quite hate it, and when I get home I am glad I did it, but then I am feeling old and sore the next day and wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I keep doing this.  I live in a fairly rural area and almost every route I take goes past a farm field.  This year, there is corn planted in quite a few of them.  I run along one of these fields for over a mile.  And as I was running last week, I was looking into the rows, into the shadows, and a thought occurred to me: there were no weeds.  And I had to stop because I made myself laugh so hard.  You see, that’s a line from the story.  Burt is running through the corn, away from the crazy corn-children, and he realizes there are no bugs and no weeds.

No Weeds

This was a field of GMO corn, that was sprayed with an herbicide that kills everything except the corn.  Considering that weeds can be the bane of a farmer’s existence, this concept of using a corn seed that grows a plant that can resist an herbicide seems pretty great.  But when I consider that genetic modification means the insertion of a novel gene into an organism, I have to wonder how that gene, that would never naturally occur in that cell, might affect me if I ingest it.  Proponents of genetic modification tend to liken it to hybridization.  In hybrids, someone crosses two varieties of the same species and comes up with something new.  Yes, a scientist or farmer or dog breeder may have created the hybrid, but the outcome is something that could have naturally occurred.  Genetic modification takes genes from one species (E.Coli, for example) and inserts it into the cells of another species (corn, for example).  There is no way to hybridize corn with E. Coli through cross-pollination.  It is akin to trying to hybridize a dog with corn – they do not even belong to the same taxonomilogical  kingdoms.  This bio-tech has raised a number of concerns, namely, the production of new allergens, increased toxicity, decreased nutrition, and antibiotic resistance (Bernstein et al., 2003).

And while Congress passed a GMO labeling bill last year, it does not require the package explicitly say that the food contains GMO ingredients.  They are allowed to use a QR code.  Really?  Are people still using QR codes?  I thought that fad came and went already.  If GMO’s are safe, if this isn’t a big deal, then why are food processors so hesitant to label? Because it is about marketing and perception and making money.  Consumers might hesitate to buy something because of the negative publicity surrounding GMO’s.  No CEO would support something that would hurt sales.  You think, “But it wasn’t CEO’s, it was Congress.”  Follow money trails, who has had shifted from the private sector to the public sector, in what capacity and from which company, and see the patterns and connections.  This link to a short video explains it rather succinctly.  And as we blindly consume our GMO food because we aren’t scanning QR codes on all of our food purchases, another phrase from the story comes to mind: “Sight unseen. Sight unseen. Sight unseen.”

Corn — It’s What Dinner ate

In the Post-Earl Butz world of farm subsidies, corn became something for farmers to grow and be able to make ends meet.  And if the farmers were growing it, there had to be a market for it, and so the processed food industry was off and running.  While farmers benefit a little from corn being subsidized, the food processors benefit more because these subsidies keep the price of corn artificially low.  The low price of corn keeps the price of the end-result processed food down, whether that food is soda (HFCS) or beef (it’s the feed), or a taco dinner kit.  Something else unseen: the hidden cost of that cheap food which is the foundation of the current food system on our collective health.

If we look at changes in the food system since the publication of the story, we see more and more processed food.  Not just fast food, but things in boxes.  When I was little, I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and seeing boxed meal kits.  We drank Tang (good enough for astronauts, good enough for us); we ate TV dinners (what a TREAT! – until my mom started recycling the foil trays and putting leftovers in them); we got Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was pre-KFC – it came from Gino’s, a burger joint that was started by a guy on the Baltimore Colts.  So that lets you know how long ago that was.).  These kinds of conveniences became more and more popular because let’s face it, who wants to do more work than they have to?  Corn became integral to the processed food industry, as more and more things were made of corn – from binders to sweeteners to the plastic that the food was wrapped in.

And slowly, without many of us even realizing what was going on, our food culture became more and more dependent on corn.  He Who Walks Behind the Rows (the Corn Deity from King’s story) is a menacing dark force, behind the corn, controlling the growing, the harvesting, the processing, the consumers.  In the film King Corn, two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, visit Dr. Steve Macko and learn about the amount of corn in our diets.   http://www.kpbs.org/news/2009/oct/26/hair-study-reveals-dietary-trend-high-levels-corn/  It is almost impossible to avoid corn.

There have been dozens of studies and hundreds of articles making a connection between current obesity levels and American consumption of high fructose corn syrup (which can be listed as fructose, fructose syrup, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, or isoglucose, among others).  OK, connections are not causation, but many people begin to lose weight when they stop consuming high fructose corn syrup.  According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity and overweight together are the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.  Killer corn?

Main Conflict

As the story reaches the climax, Burt finds himself being guided up the rows by the corn itself, being directed to his final conflict with the hulking and red-eyed He Who Walks Behind the Rows.  We all have our demons to confront – one of mine is a particular chip that rhymes with Mojito.  We, as a culture, are heavily influenced by food trends and fads perpetuated by corporate interests.  Many of the studies conducted at universities are funded by parent companies of food corporations and if researchers want to remain at a given school, they need to come up with the results that support the financing body.  Twenty years ago, everyone was on the non-fat trend.  Now there is a swing back to “good fats” and why our bodies need them.  The vaunted Framinghan Study has now been meta-analyzed a dozen times over and been debunked.

The story resolves with Burt dead, presumably killed by He Who Walks Behind the Rows, just like the preacher and the Police Chief a decade before, removing any authority that might challenge his ideology.  Our food system is becoming more and more centralized.  Fewer and fewer producers and manufacturers of food should be considered a national crisis!  As Henry Kissinger said, “He who controls the food, controls the people.” And he was correct.  And it isn’t just about having enough to eat – our current food system even controls who gets to eat what food.  The Children of the Corn gather around Isaac, who speaks for the Corn God, listening to how they will be punished for not doing what they should have done by having their lives shortened, as we are also being punished for blindly following food trends.  There is a lot of discussion about millennials having a lifespan shorter than that of their parents, and if it is as long or longer, the chances of elder years being spent in poor health are very high.

“Around [America] the corn rustled and whispered secretly.  It was well pleased.”

Foraging in my Yard

It has been a while since I had time to work on my blog, which was a sadness.  But now Summer has begun and with it a bit more flexibility in my schedule.  For the past few days, I found myself awake at 4:30 AM, not able to fall back to sleep, but not thinking about lesson plans or Student Growth Objectives, which is a nice change.  Instead I was thinking about blog posts, berry picking, staking tomatoes, and what to do with the mint that had gotten out of control!

Clearing Space

I have two varieties of mint growing on the side of my house: peppermint and spearmint.  They seem to get along with the raspberries, but this year, when I went out to start picking, I couldn’t get down the rows because the mint was out of control.  I started pulling it out and ended up with three enormous bunches of mint.  It hurt my heart to just throw them in with the chickens, and then I had the “A-ha” moment: tea.  This was way too much mint to put in my dehydrator, so I just tied it up to my clothes line.  I took it down at night and hung it back out the next day.  It took three days until it felt like it was really dry.  Then I just stripped the leaves from the stems and stuffed them in a jar.

This coming winter, I will happily drink mint tea from these dried leaves.  It also makes a nice iced tea, but I generally use the fresh mint for that in summer, since we have so much.

Storage Space

The fun part of this is that all of that mint, when dried packed into a quart jar.  In the winter, when I use the mint, I will put it in the mini-prep (a small food processor) to chop it up and release the oils from the leaves. Otherwise, I think it has a little bit of a “grassy” taste.  Sometimes I will mix it with loose black tea; sometimes I just make the mint.  Other dried herbs that make a nice tea with mint are lemon balm and chamomile.

This time of year, a lot of perennial herbs, like mint, sage, and oregano are going a little crazy.  Cut them back before they flower and dry them.  Any dried herbs you have left from last year should get thrown in the compost (or give them to the chickens!), as they have probably lost their potency.

 

The Right to Hate

As an educator, I was taught to keep my political views to myself, that pushing my personal political agenda, or a personal religious agenda, is an abuse of my power as an educator. I whole-heartedly believe this.  Teachers don’t necessarily think of themselves in “the power position,” but they are and that is why so many people take issues with educators.  Teachers have the power to change the way another person thinks.  Usually that change in thought process remains in the realm of new ways to solve a problem, or understanding the way the environment works, but sometimes a student sees the world in a different way.  While that is amazing and wonderful on the one hand, on the other hand, the questions must be asked, “Have I changed the student to be more like me?  Is the influence, the change in perspective, making the student think the way I think?”  That is power: the ability to make people think the same way you do.

My a-politicalness became a habit.  My Facebook friends can verify that I rarely post anything politically or religiously critical – the occasional Moses meme around Passover, maybe, but that’s about it.  But after the pronouncement by the President of the United States defending Nazi’s and the KKK and White Supremacy, the famous Edmund Burke quote kept running through my head, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”  OK, so Burke was an 18th Century privileged white guy.  And I changed the word “men” that is actually in the quote to “people.”  But Burke was a member of British Parliament under King George III.  Does that ring a bell, King George III? This country fought its first war, an insurgency against that King and his country, in order to revolutionize how government worked and began this great American Experiment.  And Burke spoke out against the King because George III had taken actions that were in direct contrast to the British Constitution.  Burk felt that the actions of the King were unconstitutional.

I think back to one of my favorite moments as a teacher.  It was 15ish years ago.  The student was the first Muslim girl I had in class who chose to cover herself.  She was very bright, very opinionated, and very good at supporting her arguments.  She sat in my classroom, always questioning, always dubious of what I was saying.  As the year went on, we continually challenged each other.  As an English teacher, where so many things can be debatable, this was great.  I loved it because I could always count on her to get the class discussion moving.  The last day of class, as she was getting ready to leave, she turned around to me and said, “I never thought a Muslim girl like me could have so much love for a Jewish woman like you.”  Just typing that now brought back the initial sense of shock of that statement coming out of her mouth.  I had never considered that any of what I had assumed was intellectual doubt may have been connected to a deeper, more insidious reason: I am Jewish, she is Muslim, and she was brought up to believe that Jews are the enemy.  I was a naïve 40.  I have no idea where she is now.  And I changed the way she thought, which I sometimes think is good – tolerance is not enough, we must learn to understand one another.  Sometimes I think it is bad, because who was I to influence her in such a way?  And I justify it to myself by saying, “It was not my intention to make her change her perspective.”

A new set of Heineken commercials is set to air this fall.  Have you seen the trailer for them?  They are about coming together and understanding that we have differences.  A society overcomes individual differences for the good of the group.  That’s the whole group.  And, sure, someone once told me that I am so far left (Alt-Left?) that I smell like a Socialist (which was funny, although I don’t quite know what it means, and it isn’t completely accurate) because I believe in helping others rise up.  I believe in raising my children, all of them – biological, by marriage, educational, and not just watching them get older.   A peer once asked how I can be so liberal and still have such strong family values.  I don’t know why people see believing in helping others rise up and having my family as my life priority are mutually exclusive, but for a while there, the political spin-masters would have the public believe that.

I am not some lovey-dovey-the-world-is-all-rainbows-and-unicorns kind of person.  There are things I dislike and things I hate.  And people, too.  Please be honest.  I am reading things on Facebook right now about not hating and how this one doesn’t hate and that one doesn’t use the word hate and tells her children not to use the word hate.  But it comes out of all of our mouths. I have unfriended people on Facebook, stopped following people on Twitter, stopped communicating with people in the real world, sometimes because I get tired of the politics, or the religion, but mostly the self-righteousness.  As soon as I assert that I am somehow above all of this, that I am somehow better, I become a part of this problem.  I, too, have hated.  I, too, am a part of the problem.

And I don’t know who did what in Charlottesville, because I wasn’t there.  But in this media age, there are a lot of videos and a lot images to sort through, which I did.  I have read many articles from a variety a news sources – which is my habit.  Of all of the video clips I watched, the President’s speech was the most disturbing.  These demonstrators were Nazi’s.  They were KKK members.  The Nazis LOST World War II.  The South LOST the Civil War.  Civil Rights PASSED.  If someone is looking for Divine Justice, why would that Creator have let those outcomes arise?  Nazis killed members of my family, although they used the word exterminate because to them the members of my family were vermin.  It is hard to give them a “pass” and not hate.  In my opinion, “very fine people” do not join with those who can look at another person and think, ‘you are less than human.’

And I say that as someone who has taught thousands of students.  In that thousands of students, there have been those who I did not like, those who I can say I hated.  I’ve had books thrown at me, desks flipped, I have been told I am the worst teacher ever; I had a student say, “Suck my dick.” But among the students I hated were not the Muslim girl, or even the Holocaust Denier.

I may look white to you, but I am not.  I did a DNA test.  I am 94% Eastern European Jew.  And Jews are not white.  Sure my skin is light, and my eyes are blue, and my nose is small, but my DNA tells the real story.  And that other 6%? Indian, Greek, and Gaelic (everyone is a little Irish, right?)  If the Nazis came to my town, right now, they would take my children and me away to a camp.  If the KKK marched through my town, they would burn a cross on my lawn, or maybe lynch me.  I am a mother, wife, school-teacher; I like to garden, preserve food, knit, and write.  I recently got back into running, but let’s face it, at 53, I am not really much of a physical threat.  These groups would have me shot because of the random chance of my DNA (The 2% Indian was a real surprise.  It makes me wonder what DNA surprises might lurk in these White Supremacists).

I struggle with contempt frequently.  I think we all do.  And if we are being honest, one thing that unites us right now is contempt for those who do not agree with us.  It may be a negative starting point, but it is common ground.  We are Americans.  We feel entitled to our First Amendment Right.  People fought and died for me to have that sense of entitlement.  We have that in common, too, that entitlement.  And as Americans, it is incumbent upon us to remember the words of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” (emphasis mine)

We are powerless over hate.  It exists in all of us, and all around us.  If we are born for love, in order to understand it, we must accept that its opposite also exists in us.  And, as both sides keep hammering, we are all entitled to our opinions and the First Amendment guarantees my right to have and express that opinion.  But the violence has got to stop.  Violence. Has. Got. To. Stop.  Yes, Black lives matter AND Blue lives matter, because ALL LIFE MATTERS.  Even the life of the person I hate.  I can hate them all I want, but I am outside of my rights to do violence to what I hate.  My pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness cannot infringe on someone else’s pursuits of the same.

Later in the essay by Edmund Burke he says, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”  Do not be an unpitied sacrifice.  As good people, we need to come together, to work together, to unexpectedly find love in our hearts for those we thought were so different from ourselves. Among my closest friends are people that I am a political polar opposite, but it never once made me stop loving them or consider not being friends with them.  I will be judged by people; I will be hated by people; I will do the same – it is human nature and I make no apologies for being human.  I will be a hypocrite; I am flawed; I will sin because I am not perfect.  But I will try to be more kind.  I will not be violent.  I will not take violent action against another person.

Bottom line: I cannot control hate.  And I will not condone violence, nor the suppression of another because of the random act of DNA.  White supremacists hate people because of their DNA, something they did not choose.  People hate White Supremacists because of their ideology, something that they did choose.

Grilled Dessert Peaches

August is a great time for local produce in New Jersey.  The weather may be oppressive, hot and very humid, lots of 90+ degree days, lots of sun, heavy thunderstorms that don’t cool things off at all.  But the flip side is that this is tomato ripening time and peach ripening time.  These conditions lead to sweet juicy fruit.  Peaches are great in pies, made into jam, lacto-fermented, or home-canned.

Here is an easy and unusual seasonal recipe.  If you are planning to grill your dinner, you can make these wonderful peaches to have for dessert!

  • 6 peaches, halved, pit removed, brushed with 2 T melted butter
  • ½ C brown sugar
  • ¼ C butter
  • 1 t vinegar
  • ¼ C water
  • A  few grains of salt
  1. Place the peaches, cut-side down on a pre-heated (medium) grill. Close the lid and leave to cook for about 5 minutes. Check on the grill marks.  You want the peaches to be dark, but not blackened!  For “criss-cross” marks, rotate the peach half 90 degrees.  When they are done, arrange the cooked peaches on a heatproof platter and let them cool.
  2. In a small pan, combine the remaining ingredients. Heat over medium, until the mixture gets bubbly. Stir carefully and constantly for about 2 minutes.  Removed from heat and pour over the grilled peaches.  Sprinkle each half with a tiny bit more salt.  Let cool.  Serve at room temperature.  If there are any left over, store in the refrigerator, but bring back to room temp to eat.

Not Your Run of the Mill Cucumber Salad

One of the hobbies I have is reading old cookbooks.  I have a review of a classic gem from the 19th Century by Mrs. Owens elsewhere on this site.  I find many interesting recipes and rediscover ideas and solutions to problems that have been long forgotten.  Although sometimes I laugh when I see them on “life hack” links on my social media.  Don’t know what I mean?  Like rubbing a walnut on scratched furniture to make the scratch less noticeable.  So as the cucumbers started filling out on the vines, and piling up at the markets, I went back to an old recipe that I adapted from The Searchlight Cookbook (mine is the 23rd edition, published in 1952). This is not your run of the mill cucumber salad that uses vinegar and onions.

I went back to the original recipe to see how many changes I made, and there were quite a few.  While I was looking through the book, I saw recipes for other cucumber dishes, including scalloped cucumbers and creamed cucumbers, both of which sounded rather unappealing.  But I realized that may be because the only cooked cucumber I ever ate was a pickle.  I might just have to try one of those recipes and get back to you next week. But for now, a really unusual side for a hot summer evening.

Cucumber and Cheese Salad

  • 2 medium cucumbers, cut length-wise, seeded and diced
  • ¾ C sharp cheddar cheese, cubed small
  • ¾ C diced celery
  • 1 C grated carrots
  • 1 sweet pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeño, diced (optional)
  • ¼ C  relish
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ to ½ C mayo or creamy dressing, such as the Cooked Dressing below
  1. In a colander, combine the cucumber, celery, carrots, pepper(s), and salt. Put a plate on top and weigh it down to press out some of the water. Let rest for about 20 minutes.  While you are waiting you can make the cooked dressing below.
  2. After 20 minutes, press out as much water as you can. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the cheese, relish and about ½ of dressing (you can use mayo or the dressing below). Toss to combine and evenly distribute the dressing.

Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

In addition to using this as a side, it makes a great stuffing for fresh tomatoes: cut the tops off and scoop out the seeds.  Fill the cavity with the salad.  A light refreshing lunch or dinner.

Cooked Dressing

(this is good on coleslaw, potato salad, cucumber salad, or a garden salad)

  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • 1/4 C melted butter
  • 1/2  C white vinegar
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t dry mustard
  • ¼ t paprika
  • 1 T arrowroot powder
  • 2 T honey
  1. In the top of a double boiler, or a metal bowl, combine all ingredients EXCEPT the honey, and mix until it is smooth.
  2. Place the metal bowl on top of a pot of simmering water, being sure that the water is not boiling up to the level of the bottom of the bowl. Stir constantly until it is thick and very smooth. This may take a few minutes.  Be patient.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Adjust for sweet and salt until you achieve the desired balance.
  4. Cool and transfer to a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator.

 

**If you are looking for some old standards as far as cucumber recipes, here are some links to pickles: your standard dills and garlic.