Eat corn, kill the Kaiser!

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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“FACE the FACTS” declared the March 15, 1918, Wise County Messenger. The war situation was critical and unless our boys fought like they had never fought before, defeat threatened. Hungry soldiers couldn’t fight their best, and wheat was the thing to save them. We needed to feed our soldiers, and most of Europe, all the wheat we could spare. It was the best food to fight on.

Face the Facts

America had an overabundance of corn – 500,000,000 bushels “over and above our regular needs.” That’s a lot of corn. We, as Americans, needed to learn to appreciate it and save the wheat for the boys Over There. “Was ever patriotic duty so easy? And so clear?”

The paper continued in listing the many ways cornmeal substituted for wheat, and it made reference to a document: Farmers’ Bulletin 565, “Corn Meal as a Food and Ways of Using It” from the Department of Agriculture.

What could a loyal American, such as myself, do but find this bulletin and learn to appreciate corn?

I located a digital copy of the document fairly quickly and read it.

I decided to try a few of the recipes to see what we, as 1918 American patriots, were being asked to eat in substitution for wheat. The Fella was willing to be my co-experimenter. He’s a good sport.

I ran into problems right away.

One of the problems throughout the experiment was cooking temperatures. Items to be baked in an oven almost never provided a temperature. I understand that, in 1918, ovens were undoubtedly very different than they are today. But “cook in a moderate oven” was about as specific as I ever found. So everything got cooked at 350 degrees. That seemed to work out OK. Also, cooking times were rarely provided. I took my best guess. I just checked a bunch. Everything I made was thoroughly cooked and nothing burned.

The next problem with some of the recipes were ingredients. The recipe for “Corn-Meal Scrapple” listed as its first ingredient “1 pig’s head split in halves.”

Hmm. I didn’t have a pig’s head readily available to me. Nor any idea where I might find one. Nor a desire to interact with a pig’s head quite that intimately. So I skipped that recipe.

Other recipes called for ingredients I’d never heard of – like cracklings. The recipe was nice enough, in this case, to define “cracklings.” It’s the “crisp, brown meat tissue left after the lard is ‘tried out.'” So, I needed to render lard from the byproduct of meat production. Instructions were to squeeze the brown meat and connective tissue while warm. I moved on.

I found some recipes I thought might taste somewhat like the originals and spent the weekend making patriotic corn substitutes for me and the Fella to sample.

First, I made “Fruit Gems,” which were basically corn muffins with raisins in them. They had no sugar in them, so they weren’t particularly sweet, except for the raisins. They turned out to be the least awful of the four recipes I made. I even tried one for breakfast after heating it in the toaster oven. It was warm and not untasty, but it crumbled apart instantly and I had to stick it together with butter to eat it. Not recommended.

I made “Crisp Corn-Meal Cake,” which I think was meant to cook to the consistency of a cracker or a crisp bread. This recipe failed. I got something more floppy and chewy than crisp. This one might have worked out to be palatable had I given it another go, but time was short. The flavor was OK, but I don’t like floppy crackers. Not recommended.

The “Parched Corn-Meal Biscuits” was the recipe for which I was most hopeful. It called for peanut cream, which, it turns out, is peanut butter and water cooked until the mixture has the consistency of cream. Also, the cornmeal was browned in the oven before use. Surely, these would be tasty.

They were not good. They were like heavy peanut butter cookies that weren’t sweet and had an uncontrollable corn aftertaste. We tried eating these straight, and we even tried them like pancakes with syrup and bananas. Nope. Nothing could compete with that distinctive corniness and the grittiness factor of cornmeal. We threw them out. Not recommended.

Finally, I made “Corn Meal and Hominy Bread.” Perhaps, after three failures, making something like cornbread would work out. Well … this was the most unbreadlike cornbread I’ve ever made. The best comparison we could come up with was it’s the consistency of cold butter. We tried it with butter, and it was barely edible. We finally had it with our dinner, which was a pot roast with gravy, very 1918-esque.

Finally, we discovered a way to eat this thing. Smothered with enough gravy and beef, the corn flavor was not dominant to the point of gagging. In its favor, we both felt it was a filling addition to the meal.

Our overall conclusion was there was a good reason the government was hammering Americans over the head with their patriotic duty to choke down all this corn. It tasted terrible. It in no way made up for what wheat had to offer.

Corn is corn, and it tastes like corn. There’s no getting around that. There’s not enough peanut cream in the world.

I asked the Fella why they didn’t ship all this cornmeal to the starving Europeans and the soldiers, if it was in such wonderful abundance? They might just be hungry enough to eat it.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. She is steering away from corn-based products for a while.

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