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Man, that's a lotta corn

I'm currently working on a YA trilogy one could describe as Dystopia Lite. It takes place in a society that relies heavily on processed food (see what I did there?). Non-processed foodstuffs are illegal and are classified as controlled substances. It's an adventure/quest/conspiracy tale, very tongue-in-cheek, and I'm having a ball writing it.

Researching it has also been very enjoyable. Lord knows there's plenty of material out there. One of the most intriguing research threads has been about what I think of as The Rise of the Agricultural Machine, and why a huge percentage of what we consume, either to eat or to use, is made of corn or a corn product. But I digress.

The term 'organic' as it refers to food emerged in the counterculture era of the 1960s. It had been used earlier to encompass a feeling of more general opposition to the changes technology rained down on society during the Industrial Revolution in the early twentieth century.

Early Rodale publication

Health food guru J. I. Rodale was more directly responsible for using the word organic related to food cultivation. If you're familiar with the magazine Prevention, the surname Rodale may ring a bell with you.  He championed the growth and consumption of what we now think of as organic food all the way back in the 1940s. Twenty years later, his teachings caught on with the hippies. Flower children co-opted the term and the philosophy, combining it with what they were trying to achieve living in communes. Today we would call that living off the grid. Theirs was a sort of back-to-nature movement with the additional goal of sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that while doing the research, I inevitably turn up stuff from real life that is way crazier than anything I could ever make up. For example: the notion that organic food was considered by some as something to be avoided in the 1960s and 1970s, like we avoid letting our mouths touch the spout on a water fountain. Big government and scientists in the pocket of

The bounty available at the Dallas Farmers Market

Big Ag were very concerned that this new movement would erode their efforts in maximizing the industrialization of agriculture. They had spent a lot of money and scratched a lot of backs in Washington, D. C. to restructure government aid to farmers and reinvigorate foreign trade in commodities (mainly corn). They didn't want any disruptions and were probably mindful of the antiwar protests that had rattled the government bureaucracy and ended the Vietnam War. So they discredited the organic movement at every opportunity:

- In 1974 a kangaroo court of food 'experts' convened a panel on 'The Food Supply and the Organic Food Myth', branding the movement as 'dangerous nonsense'.

- Quoting from Michael J. Pollan's most excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma:

"Henry J. Heinz, Jr. branded the organic movement 'food faddism', and he wrote that its advocates 'are persuading thousands to adopt foolish and costly eating habits'."

- and from the equally excellent Eat Your Heart Out by Jim Hightower, written contemporaneously (1975):

"Agriculture Secretary [Earl] Butz . . . became almost wild-eyed in his assertion that the specter of organic food production promises starvation for 50 million Americans."

Why all the panties in a twist over a micro movement that had little or no impact on the bottom line of the 1970s era food business? Because billions were being spent on marketing as well as production. Butz's Machiavellian machinations were restructuring farm subsidies as part of a grander scheme to change the way the agriculture sector worked. This new strategy depended on farmers flooding the supply of food to get the price to consumers down to absolute minimum. And BTW the consumers they were trying to please weren't you and me - they were mega corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.  The food biz was very mindful of the effects of the Vietnam War protests and how powerful the voting public could be if properly motivated. They didn't want a repeat wrecking the demand side if the organic food movement managed to generate a 'mistrust' of the food supply.

by Sidney Harris as seen in Eat Your Heart Out by Jim Hightower

It is a great comfort to me, reading Hightower's book with forty years of perspective, that the organic movement has survived and indeed thrived since that time. There haven't been any food sit-ins or demonstrations or protests that I'm aware of. But people are voting with their pocketbook, and it's having an effect. Organic food still needs to overcome the stigma of being too pricey, too hipster-buying-kale. But the big food companies are taking pains to offer choices that appear to be healthier. Food co-ops and community gardens and farmer's markets are all the rage.  If you're not sure that's true, take a look at the financials for Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Trader Joe's. The wheel is turning slowly, but it is turning.

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

Not to be outdone by Dr. Pepper's '10, 2 and 4' campaign . . .

A recent rabbit hole started innocently enough as I enjoyed an article about local foods/drinks that are not easily available outside their home geographic area. The North Carolina beverage Cheerwine was prominently featured.

When we first moved to the Carolinas several years ago, Cheerwine had me guessing. Is it wine? If so, why is it sold in a can like beer or soda? Of course the best way to get my questions answered was to try one. Turns out it's a soft drink, or as we say in Texas, it's a coke. Tastes similar to Dr. Pepper but is even sweeter IMO if you can imagine such a thing. Fruity, hint of cherry, hence the name.

I've always been curious about that name, so close to what it actually is, but just a little off (like using the Car Fox to shill for the Car Fax product. Still confused about that.). Shouldn't Cheerwine be Cherr Wine as in 'cherry'? But then maybe Chair Wine to get the pronunciation correct, because you know everyone would be pronouncing Cherr 'share'. The problem with Chair Wine is of course that we sacrifice meaning for pronunciation. No one would have a clue what it's supposed to be - is it so awful/amazing, you need to be sitting in a chair to drink it? Obviously way too many issues with Cherr/Chair, so they went with the next best thing: Cheer. That still doesn't explain the 'wine' part. . .

But I digress -

So I'm reading this article and my South Carolina hackles rise because we have our own local soft drink here, Blenheim Ginger Ale, so where's the love, dang it?? Blenheim was omitted from the article, but you know I won't leave it out of this post.

I did a little poking around and found some interesting stuff about the history of soft drinks. The term 'soft' is to differentiate them from 'hard' drinks, or drinks that contain alcohol. Soft drinks are non-alcoholic (or very low alcohol) and are often, but not always, carbonated and flavored. The soft drink biz is a $50 billion industry (flavoring and manufacturing combined) in the U.S.  Yes, billion with a B. Their popularity is linked to many serious health issues including diabetes and obesity. In other words, people can't get enough of the stuff!

The roots of this addictive habit can be traced to ancient times, when naturally carbonated mineral spring waters were prized for their healing properties. It's our nature to believe this stuff is healthy! But in ancient times, no festively decorated 18-wheelers rolled into your village and dropped off conveniently packaged cans of the stuff.  If you wanted some, you had to hoof it to the nearest mineral springs, the locations of which may have been the origin for the phrase 'few and far between'. Most folks just were not up for that, considering they were busy avoiding the Mongol hoards, Viking raids, the Black Death, and other delights of bygone eras.

So the trick to enjoying refreshing drinks was either to live near a mineral spring, or find a way to bring the mineral spring waters to you. In 1767, Joseph Priestly made this one step closer to a possibility. If you're thinking he was a master plumber of the Roman aqueduct school, not exactly. Running miles of plumbing pipes wouldn't have worked - the spring water would get flat by the time it arrived at your house. If you're thinking he invented glass bottles, wrong again by over a hundred years. No, what Mr. Priestly came up with was pretty ingenious - he figured out how to add bubbles to plain old water.

Riker's Drug Store soda fountain New York City 1923

Okay, great - now, with the right equipment, we have the potential for creating an endless supply of bubbly water on premises. And that's exactly what businesses did. They set up carbonation rooms and connected the bubbliciousness to a tap. Voila! Fizzy water on demand without all that annoying trekking cross-country to the mineral spring.

This was all well and good except for one small problem: the product didn't taste all that great. Appetizing ingredients required to create the bubbles such as sulphuric acid, calcium carbonate, and marble dust didn't translate well to the average palate. But not to worry: recall that the early mineral waters were consumed primarily for their purported health benefits, so the natural place to purchase them was at the local pharmacy. Also note: many early medicines were consumed in liquid form. Experienced pharmacists had long been in the business of making yucky liquid medicine taste good enough that their patients would actually take it. If it tastes good, they will drink. Light bulb moment! By the mid-1800s the great experimentation with adding flavors to carbonated water had begun.

Soda fountains also came in tabletop versions if you couldn't afford a big production like Riker's

Flash forward to the early 20th century. Soda fountains were popular, but bars were still their primary competition - until Prohibition came along. From 1920-1933, the soda biz exploded (literally as well as figuratively - explosions during the carbonation process were a known hazard). The trifecta of technology (carbonation process), increased demand (due to the addition of appealing flavors), and economics (Prohibition drastically reducing competition from the bar sector) resulted in a boom time for soda fountains. It was very similar to what we are seeing today with craft beers. As with all things, the soft drink boom did not last. Once the bars were back up and running, the soda fountain business flattened out. But a surprising number of these drinks are still around. Many have been gobbled up by conglomerates, but their hometown roots are still there if you look hard enough. Here's a great article listing the local brews from all 50 states.

Some fun facts

Because the soft drink boom was long before artificial colors and flavors existed, many early soft drinks relied on plant-based ingredients such as roots (ginger, sassafras, gentian), vegetables (celery), and fruits (grapes, cherries, lemons, limes) for their flavors. You're probably aware the original recipes for many popular drinks also contained ingredients that are now considered illegal and addictive. After all, Coca-Cola didn't get its name because the inventor had a stammer - it actually did contain a form of cocaine. Around the turn of the century, soft drinks were positioned more as health pick-me-ups, the forerunners of today's energy drinks. Ingredients were often touted to improve health in various ways, and early on, products from the coca plant were considered beneficial. Lithium was also included in some early recipes, notably 7UP, and of course caffeine. Lithium and coca were eliminated when their possible deleterious side effects were discovered. Curiously, the same cannot be said for sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and the various alphabet soup of chemicals currently in many sodas. Maybe some day we will all be reading one of my future blog posts talking about the olden days when people actually enjoyed drinking the gut-destroying concoctions known as 'soft drinks'.

New York entrepreneur John Matthews is known by some as the Father of the Soda Fountain. Not long after he emigrated from England and determined to get into the soda fountain business, the iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral had undergone a recent renovation. Knowing that marble dust could be used in the chemical reaction to create carbonation, Matthews bought up all the crumbled marble. It's estimated the holy scrap fueled 25 million gallons of soda water.

A passing resemblance

Ginger ales were far more popular in the early days of soft drinks than they are now. Many contemporary soft drinks available in a variety of flavors today such as Shasta, Polar, RC Cola, and Vernors have ginger ale roots. Literally. Ginger root has been used as a flavoring ingredient and as well as a health aid for thousands of years. When found to flourish in the Caribbean, ginger was readily available in the New World and as such, a natural to make the leap to flavoring carbonated water as well as many other types of food and drink. True ginger ale bears little flavor resemblance to the bland tasting stuff primarily used today as a background for mixed alcoholic drinks. My first Blenheim Ginger Ale was a delightful surprise. If you think you don't like ginger ale, and you have the chance to taste one of these heirloom brews, do it. You'll thank me. Beware the hot versions if you don't like spicy stuff. They're not kidding. Also beware that at a distance, to the South Carolina DNR (boat staties), a clear glass bottle of the golden goodness that is Blenheim looks very much like a clear glass bottle of Corona. . .

Speaking of beer: the various beer-named soft drinks of course do not contain alcohol, much to every child's chagrin. Who of us didn't feel a guilty pleasure/burst into giggles/think we were more grown up when allowed to have a root 'beer'? Root beer is the foundation for many soft drink dynasties such as Barq's, IBC, and the granddaddy of all root beers, A&W (interesting side note: California-based A&W was America's first franchised restaurant chain and the first restaurant to use drive-in and curbside service. Take that, Mickey D's!) The root used for 'root beer' originally was the sassafras root until one of its components, safrole, was found to be carcinogenic  - yikes! Nowadays the safrole is removed from the sassafras compound or an artificial sassafras flavoring is used. This is one of the rare cases when no one will be carping about going back to the original natural ingredient! Sarsaparilla is a close cousin to sassafras, and therefore root beer, in taste if not in taxonomy. Birch beer is flavored with an extract of tree bark, usually birch, and also tastes similar to plain old root beer.

Grape flavors have also proved popular over the years, as evidenced by Alabama's Grapico,

Arkansas' Grapette, and Louisiana's Delaware Punch (which is named for the Delaware grape, not the state). There's nothing like an ice-cold grape soda to give you a temporary but delicious soda mustache.

Arizona's orange-pineapple Cactus Cooler may not have as lengthy a pedigree as some drinks I have mentioned, but it's the only one I found that was inspired by a cartoon (The Flintstones).

Thanks to the bitterness of Maine's local brew's main ingredient, gentian root, it has entered our lexicon as a synonym for 'guts', as in, you have to have plenty of guts to drink it. The name? 'Moxie'.

Michigan's Feigenson brothers weren't pharmacists; they were bakers. Like pharmacists, their profession also lent itself beautifully to the soft drink biz. Icing recipes did double duty as inspiration for the many flavors of their in-house beverage, Faygo. Mmmmmm, icing . . .

As a kid, I grew up drinking Kool-Aid. One of the few bright spots of being hauled along on the drudgery of grocery shopping trips was being allowed to choose which Kool-Aid flavor packets went into our basket (Black Cherry was my favorite, and yes, my mom used real sugar when she mixed up a pitcher). But Kool-Aid wasn't always sold dry. Back when Kool-Aid was getting its start in Prohibition-era Nebraska, they briefly offered a bottled, carbonated version of the iconic powder mix.

New York's Dr. Browns figured out a clever niche for their product. They were one of the few, if not the only, early soft drinks that was Kosher certified. That may be why people continued to drink it, despite the celery they insisted on adding to their flavors. Celery was the hot new health fad once upon a time. Look for a blog post about that here soon.

No treatise on soft drink history would be complete without a mention of Texas' multi-ingredient, cherry cola-flavored Dr. Pepper. DP is one of the few drinks from the soda fountain heydey still going strong today. Invented in 1885 by a pharmacist in Waco, Texas, Dr. Pepper was light years ahead in the marketing game. It got a big publicity bump when it was featured at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As a Texan, I have a soft spot for DP. Back in the 1970s Dr. Pepper earned my undying devotion when they introduced a diet version. It tasted great! At that time, the only other diet soda available in our area was an abomination known as Tab. Think carbonated cod liver oil. Diet DP was my morning office pick-me-up for years since I'm not a coffee drinker. Envision a hot summer day, walking in from the shimmering asphalt of the company parking lot, greeted by a blast of air frostily conditioned the way only Texans know how, and reach for that chilled bottle of DP straight out of the artic atmosphere of the behemoth coke machine. Heaven!

I don't drink much in the way of soft drinks anymore. I gave up my hardcore forty-year one-a-day Diet Coke/Coke Zero habit in November 2013, thank you very much. At the peak of my addiction, I would scoff at my mom's insistence that cokes just didn't taste the same without the pure cane sugar and the other natural ingredients she remembered from her youth. I was so busy counting calories, I wouldn't have dreamed of drinking a 'real' coke. My, how things have changed. I think that's why I enjoyed that Blenheim ginger ale. So much flavor, without the chemicals in most modern soft drinks that I can taste now that I've kicked the habit. It's definitely an experience I would like to repeat in moderation. What's the best soft drink produced locally in your area? And how can I get some?

The original version of this post was published in July 2015.

My latest book, The Dala Horse, is set in post-Civil War Texas. As I was researching that era, I came across an amusing compilation of recipes for coffee substitutes. The Union/Yankees/Northerners included the port of Galveston as part of their naval blockade to cut off supplies to the South. Many items, not just coffee, were unavailable for years.

The blockade was called the 'Anaconda Plan' because it was supposed to squeeze the life out of the South. The 'Scott' referenced on the map was General Winfield Scott, U.S. Army. At 6'-5" and 300 pounds, when people say he was the inspiration for the term 'Great Scott!', I believe it.

Newspapers went kaput because newsprint was no longer available. Although many folks were used to making their own clothing at that time, they had the additional fun of having to make their own fabric during the war as well, since bolts of woven fabrics were scarce. But of all the things on hiatus in the South during and for a time after the Civil War, coffee was the most missed and most celebrated upon its return.

When contemplating this post I was sorely tempted to try out some of these substitutions and report on how they tasted compared to the real thing. There's just one problem: I don't drink coffee, mainly because I don't like coffee. I don't think I could have rendered a fair opinion. Roasted lug nuts would have probably tasted as good or better than actual coffee to me.

Then, as now, coffee was grown mostly in tropical hemispheres and imported for our consumption. So getting a crate of coffee beans delivered from Sao Paolo to San Antonio wasn't gonna happen with Great Scott's Anaconda snappishly guarding the door. But lots of other things grew wild and rampantly in the warm American South and were quickly pressed into service. Anything that could be roasted, ground, and brewed with hot water, was. Everything from corn meal to beets, rye, asparagus (seeds, not spears - mercy, no!), acorns, chicory, turnips, barley, parsnips, wheat, field peas, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, popcorn, cotton seeds, and tree bark was put forth. I kid you not. Tree. Bark. I will quote the actual 'receipt', as they were wont to say for 'recipe' back then, lest you not believe me:

"Take tan bark, three parts; three old cigar stumps and a quart of water, mix well, and boil fifteen minutes in a dirty coffee pot."
Arkansas True Democrat, October 17, 1861

And you thought Starbucks had exhausted all possible coffee iterations. If this really was a thing, it goes a long way toward explaining coffee drinker halitosis.

Every substitute suggested was strongly backed by the person suggesting it, claiming it was as good or better than the real thing. This is utter nonsense, of course (except maybe for the chicory, which I understand is still popular as a coffee ingredient in certain parts of the south). People couldn't wait to get their coffee beans back in the pot after the war. I wish the acorn recipe had panned out. I would be sitting on an acorn coffee goldmine thanks to the massive and prolific jack oak tree in my front yard. Instead, I'm forced to rely on the local squirrel population to remove them from underfoot, bless their hearts. If they can learn to operate a wheelbarrow, they can use mine, no charge.

There have been many other instances food shortages since the 'unpleasantness' between the North and the South. Many items, including sugar and dairy products, were rationed during World War II. But this was before my time. More recent supply chain interruptions have not been war-related, thank goodness. We had the 2015 Blue Bell listeria scare. And the Cheesepocalypse (the 2014 rumors of a Velveeta shortage). And the temporary Twinkie extinction of 2013. All three products are restored or soon will be, and their consumers are ecstatic - even though their waistlines won't be. (Is anyone else worried that the most recent shortages have occurred not in an effort to conserve resources for a nobler effort, but because of faulty business or manufacturing models of over-processed, unhealthy junk food we shouldn't be eating anyway?)

That's not to say current generations haven't experienced sacrifice. They've come up with a way to inflict one upon themselves. It's called a 'diet'. Just talk to anyone who has voluntarily given up meat or pasta or sugar. Their behavior is eerily similar to the pioneers who longed for their coffee beans. Here's the modern version of the Five Stages Of Deprivation:

1) Reminiscing - stories of how things used to be 'before', when their metabolism was fully functioning or before they learned more than they wanted to know about the processed food industry.
2) Self-pity - The sad little tear quickly wiped away after fruitlessly perusing a menu at a chic new bistro for something they are willing to eat, and having to settle for a side salad.
3) Ingenuity - The bizarre formulations concocted in a desperate attempt at approximating the missing item. Google 'gluten-free brownie recipe'.
4) False Confidence - The insistence that their substitute food of choice is just as tasty as the original. For the best example of this, sit next to your vegan cousin next Thanksgiving.
5) Ecstasy - The rapturous expression at the inevitable slip when they allow themselves a nibble of the forbidden item.

I wish it weren't so, but I've learned these things from sad experience. Our coffee supply is fine. But the ice cream - well, that's another story. Here at my house, we're somewhere between Self-Pity and Ecstasy. At long last, the first Blue Bell delivery in months finally arrived at our local grocery store. But it's so dang expensive, we wait for it to go on sale. They better hurry. We're starting to run out of tree bark and cigar stumps.

The original version of this post was published in December 2015.

As Lent is upon us, I have been interested to learn what people are giving up in this season of abstinence. It is no surprise to me that the item most often abandoned is some sort of food. There are a few iconoclasts who do without tobacco, or alcohol, or shopping. I never got beyond the idea of renouncing something edible (I gave up chocolate). To many of us, foregoing food is the ultimate sacrifice. There is only one person to blame for my epicureal preoccupation: my mother.

Mom is the last of her line in a fine tradition of southern cooks. She grew up in a large family. Her own mother, my grandmother Winona, had to satisfy nine healthy appetites for the better part of two decades. Winona had no microwave or dishwasher as helping hands in the kitchen. It is no wonder, then, that as the oldest of six children, my mother soon found herself the number one kitchen assistant, and thus learned to cook at the apron strings of the master.

It is difficult to recreate the multi-dimensional majesty of my mother’s cooking

Mom at age 80 still frying cube steak like a boss

via the printed word. Thanks to Mom, if I ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I am ready with an answer: my mother’s chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, green beans, and her homemade yeast rolls. Her home-brewed iced tea is the perfect accompaniment. As is the case with most meals, the meat is clearly the star.

Chicken-fried steak is a southern specialty, often confusing the uninitiated. Is it steak? Is it chicken? Deep-fried or pan fried? Some are surprised to learn it is only the humble cube steak, pounded into tender submission before being dunked in milk to allow the flour coating to stick. Then the palm-sized portions hit the hot grease of my mother’s black cast iron skillet with the initial hissssss to rival any McDonald’s French fry operation. Once they have turned a toasty brown and filled the house with the intoxicating aroma of fried meat (my apologies to vegetarians), they are ready to eat. When that first batch hit the paper towel-lined serving dish to make room in the skillet for the next, my father could always be found skulking about in the kitchen, stalking stray nibbles of steak that had become separated from the Pangaea of the bigger portions. Done properly, as my mother always did, chicken-fried steak requires nothing sharper than the side of your fork to divide it into bite-size pieces.

The side dishes pale in comparison to this pan-fried glory. They are there for the sake of upholding tradition; and in the case of the potatoes, upholding my mother’s cream gravy.

Never in all my classroom hours of chemistry or math did I ever approach the level of timing, precise measurement, and pure artistry required to duplicate Mom’s cream gravy. Making gravy from scratch is my culinary Holy Grail. I have tried and failed more times than the Jamaican bobsled team. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The grease must be of the correct temperature (hot) and quantity (equal to the flour). The flour must be stirred into the hot grease vigorously, so that the dreaded lumps cannot form. Then, and only then, the correct quantity of milk is added. If you do not own the little pink crockery bowl my mother uses for the milk, you will never be able to get the milk quantity right. I do not own one of these bowls, as they have not been made since 1960.

This is why, when Lent rolls around each year, giving up some sort of food is the worst suffering I can imagine. When I am feeling contemplative, I wonder how something so harmless as a good meal in good company should be something I should try to control; avoid, even. Then I look at my last cholesterol test results. I suppose setting aside one of my favorite edibles is the least I can do for Lent this year. If I had any guts, I would have given up chicken-fried steak.