As I passed through Iowa and Illinois on Amtrak's California Zephyr train two weeks ago, my bemused eyes awash in blurred green seas of corn that seemed hypnotically monotonous after the dramatic peaks and passes of the Colorado Rockies, I thought about how corn has taken on a troublesome stature in the growing U.S. food politics movement. The Ethicurean website, which reports on a heaping of matters at the intersection of food and ethics, even has a label called "The Cornification of America" that pulls up almost too many posts to click through, the most recent being that chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi restaurant has banished corn from his menu for having reached an unforgivably oversweetened hybrid state.
It's easy to ask--and difficult to answer--the question, "What's so wrong with corn?," and the Corn Refiners Association has fought back against negative publicity with a disturbingly corny and empty-headed ad campaign called Sweet Surprise, in which gleaming-toothed people refuse popsicles or brightly-colored drinks for having high fructose corn syrup but then accept sheepishly after being unable to explain why they find this ingredient suspicious. You can see the commercials and read responses here.
I do find it dizzying to navigate the corn maze (couldn't pass up the pun), but I will say that, like most other ethical food issues, it goes beyond a mere question of taste to extend into larger-scale problems of corn subsidies that disproportionately prop up the processed food industry and industrial agriculture in a way that leads to widespread environmental and health problems, like soil erosion and loss of biodiversity on one end, and obesity and diabetes on another. An additional concern is the increasing domination of genetically modified corn that enables the agribusiness giant Monsanto to ridiculously "patent" species that are easily spread by the everyday blowing of the wind and then sue those who cannot prevent the wind's effects for patent infringement, and also to exploit farmers and promote waste by forcing them to keep re-buying seeds instead of just saving and replanting existing seeds, as the documentary Food, Inc. partially highlights. The World According to Monsanto, which I haven't yet seen, takes an even more in-depth look at Monsanto's death-grip on the U.S. agricultural industry.
Another source of information on corn is Michael Pollan, who saturated readers with everything we ever wanted to know about corn production and reproduction in the dense first chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, perhaps purposely making us experience in text form the sickening glut of corn-based foodstuffs that are forced on American consumers, mainly as high fructose corn syrup and the meat of corn-fed animals. The documentary King Corn, which is also on my movies-to-watch list, focuses exclusively on this many-headed corn hydra by following 1 acre of corn from seed-sowing to the end consumers.
That mealy mouthful said, corn is still my favorite basic staple, and while I try to avoid processed foods and too much corn syrup, I can't cut whole corn entirely out of my diet. And so it surprised me that in all my corn ventures, both culinary and intellectual, appetizing and anxiety-producing, I had never heard of corn tea. My friend Son, whose guest bed I stayed on in Chicago during a blissful one-night reprieve from the reclining train seat, introduced me to this simple pleasure common at the Korean table. I had brewed barley tea before but hadn't tried the roasted corn version, which is slightly sweeter and lighter--at least not knowingly, though I have been served golden-colored tea at many a Korean restaurant.
Son and her husband Jimmy keep their fridge well-stocked with iced corn tea during the sweltering Midwestern summer months and filled a bottle of the refreshing brew to help me survive the 19-hour Chicago-New York train ride, which was much more crowded and less scenic than the 52-hour San Francisco (Emeryville)-Chicago route. To make a batch, Son throws a handful of the roasted kernels into a strainer that fits into her kettle and brings the water just to a boil before turning the flame off and then discarding the corn. In case I wander into a Korean market when I'm back in the S.F. Bay Area, she wrote out the Korean spelling and pronunciation for me, below. I've also seen it transliterated as "oksusu cha," but Son's way is cuter: