by Cynthia Clampitt
As the world rushes towards standardization, there has been an increased interest in trying to save, at least in writing, what is being lost: the traditions, the history, the foodways that helped define the regions of the United States. Among these regions, the Midwest is one of the last to get serious attention, despite the fact that it is the region most responsible for feeding the country and the world.
The University of Illinois Press is currently trying to remedy that situation. I am among the food historians they have tapped to research and record the foodways of the Midwest. Some books look at specific ethnic groups, some at food forms, and then there’s corn. That’s my topic. Corn is the elephant in the room, the giant subject that is the backdrop for all other subjects. Corn is the crop that drove people onto the plains. It is the crop that built the railways, the Union Stockyards, the Midwest’s big cities and many of her big businesses. It is behind everything from livestock to bourbon to biofuels. For more than a century, it was the central fact of life in the Midwest—from husking bees and cornbread to the development of agricultural technology (plows, huskers, shellers, mills).
So I’m under contract with the University of Illinois Press to write about all of this—the history and impact of corn/maize in the American Midwest. It’s an exciting project, and I’m having a lot of fun with the research, but I’d like to take some time off from the daily grind to run around the Midwest and talk to actual humans (not just reading books). I’m looking to talk to farmers, agricultural historians, families whose ancestors settled the land, museum docents, folklorists, scientists, livestock breeders, anthropologists, businesses that utilize corn (everything from Orville Redenbacher to people who make biodegradable plastics from corn). I want a lot of great stories in the book, not just stuff I got from reading other people’s research.
However, I’m self-employed and self-supporting, so there is no paid vacation to help me out and no one else to pay the rent. So I’ve set up a project on Kickstarter, to see if I can’t get a little help with this. If I don’t make my goal, I don’t get any of the money, so I hope you’ll pass this along to anyone you know who would like to help or would appreciate one of the offered rewards (name in the book, free add on the blog, that sort of thing). The University of Illinois is really working overtime to promote the books in this project, so it is likely that being named in the book or having a link to the blog that supports the book will offer some serious attention to those listed there. That said, the primary reward is knowing that you’re helping to preserve the heritage of the Midwest.
Here’s where you can check out my project, if you have any interest in food history and creating a record of America’s foodways.
Also, while I’ve got some good, solid connections, I’m still looking for people with great stories about “how corn shaped the Midwest.” So if you know anyone with great insight or information, let me know. This can be anything from contacts at John Deere to corn museum docents to experts on Prohibition or the Union Stockyards to corn festival planners, and beyond. The history of corn in the Midwest is pretty pervasive, so there are lots of possibilities.
Thanks for your consideration. I hope you’ll want to be part of this important project.
BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.