Corn and the Natural and Cultural Landscape
By Trista Reis Porter
Peering down rows of autumnal North Carolina corn, my view is interrupted by the field’s dry, decaying ears and tattered remnants of tan and brown husks and stalks—bent, chaotic, and distanced from their once straight lines. To my left: a moderately travelled two-lane highway; to my right: a line of tall, dark pine trees; above the tops of corn stalks, which tower over me despite their ragged state, another solid line of dark green trees lurks behind. With effort, I see bits of this forest line through tiny windows scattered among the otherwise obstructing vestiges. In summer, I can easily see between any two rows of composed slender stalks, all the way to the pine forest that encases it. On this gray Sunday October afternoon, the gentle wind rattles the dilapidated husks, releasing a damp grassy scent and raucous noise—like walking through a pile of leaves without the tempo of my footsteps.
Early September in Iowa, I am riding in the back seat of my mother’s mini-van along an isolated highway bracketed by cornfields almost ready for harvest. I hold my breath anticipating the few seconds when I can see straight down the space between two rows of corn, for seemingly endless miles. This machine-made pattern in fields that dominate the landscapes of the Midwest provides a second of uninhibited clarity and draws my attention to the horizon line. Above it, veils of clouds slowly churn in a variety of patterns visible from almost anywhere.
Several years later, I hear an art history professor from Nebraska defend what most consider an otherwise dull Midwestern landscape: “The land is mostly flat, but the skies are always doing something.” This resonates with me as I recall road trips to Missouri and southern Iowa to visit my grandparents and high school bus trips around the state for cross-country meets and various band, choir, and speech competitions—moments when I had the boredom and time to observe the land and sky of this region I call home. My professor’s declaration overlooks the cornfields covering the flatland and rolling hills of the Midwest. These features define this region, yet they are so pervasive in the everyday life of a Midwesterner they aren’t even worth mentioning.
As in Iowa, corn in the South marks identity. It is deeply engrained in the agriculture and food traditions of this region, though celebrated in a wider array of dishes than in the Midwest. Cornbread and grits come to mind, but corn also makes up an essential ingredient for moonshine, bourbon, hominy, succotash, chow-chow, corn casserole, and anything fried in or cooked with cornmeal. Dishes that once sustained hunger when more nutritious options were lacking and expensive, cornbread and grits are now elevated and transformed in the contemporary, gourmet food traditions of the South. For many, they evoke a taste of southern place—a southern terroir—and with it, visions of southern agrarianism and fields carved into the forested landscapes. Boiled ears of sweet corn, drenched in butter and salt, evoke a different taste of place to me—an Iowan terroir—and with it, visions of an Iowan landscape and countless memories of my home.
I often refer to corn to describe where I am from: “We don’t have much in Iowa, but we have a lot of corn.” Fields of corn surround the small, rural town in which I grew up. They are as abundant as the sky along gravel country roads. In my memories of Iowa, corn is the landscape; by all accounts, corn is not a southern thing to someone who was born and raised in Iowa. The first time I hear someone identify corn as southern, the fury of all Iowans before and after me courses through my veins. Corn is OUR thing! Don’t they know that?!
Things have changed. I am now, for the moment at least, a southerner. I acknowledge that my memories of waiting for the few seconds when you could see down the space between two rows of corn are not singular to my life as an Iowan. They may be tangible for anyone who has spent any time driving by cornfields, southerners included. However, arriving in North Carolina from the Midwest for the first time, the primary feature of this landscape seems to be the vast and infinite forests of pine trees hugging the mountainous and curving highway in the northwest corner of the state. Just as someone who has never visited Iowa might be surprised to find that cornfields occupy such immense tracts of the landscape there, I am surprised, transfixed, and delighted to arrive in this region that looks so much different from my own. The tightly packed forests do not disappear when I arrive in the Piedmont, either. Most twisty two-lane highways around Chapel Hill are encased on either side by trees that sometimes touch overheard, creating a type of tunnel.
My mother visits North Carolina within a week of my move here. The change in scenery still seems fresh and new, and before her arrival, I eagerly anticipate driving her around and mutually doting on what I see as an almost exotic new scenery. I am, perhaps, overly romantic and enthusiastic for her to be impressed with my new home state. Throughout her visit, I gush about the pine forests that surround Chapel Hill, anticipating a comparably exuberant response. After several quiet nods and smiles, she expresses that actually, the trees feel a bit confining compared to the open, rolling fields of the Midwest.
My brother, a pilot, describes the landscapes of states based on what he sees from the airplane as he flies in. A few months after I move to Chapel Hill, he flies into North Carolina for an evening. When I pick him up from his hotel, he immediately mentions that all he could see from the airplane were trees. One year later, I fly to Pittsburgh from Chapel Hill. The sky is clear and I am able to view the landscape below for the entirety of the trip. All I see of North Carolina are trees—some dark and green, others shades of red, yellow, and brown. Roads and highways dividing the landscape are hidden, and the few visible fields and cleared plots of land are glyphs on a forested backdrop. From the sky, as from the ground, the North Carolina Piedmont appears irregular, chaotic, foreboding. Open patches of land seem smaller, fewer, and surrounded by trees, bringing the chaos to the fore. From the sky, Iowa appears gridded, controlled, overwhelmingly ordered like a patchwork quilt. The regularity and scale of the open Iowa landscape is manifest in the organized agricultural patterns that now define it.
I bring with me three souvenirs from Iowa when I relocate to the American South: a cork bulletin board in the shape of my home state; a tray once purchased as a souvenir from the Dutch Tulip Festival in Pella, Iowa; and an iron oval-shaped trivet with the molded image of two ears of corn, painted mustard yellow and well-worn by a previous owner. I carved the cork-board myself, and I salvaged the tray and trivet at a flea market in Des Moines, Iowa. These souvenirs decorate my apartment as visible testament to the deep love and longing I have for Iowa. I prize the corn trivet the most; of the three souvenirs it references my homeland least specifically, but most symbolically. Like the Iowa State Fair, or the “Corn and Beans” barn quilt pattern peppered throughout the state, it shows that what Iowa sings loudest is its corn and what corn, to an Iowan, sings loudest, is Iowa.
Staring down these rows of North Carolina corn in early October, the spaces between uncover the spaces between two landscapes. They are voids I fill with glimpses of collective celebrations and histories, diverse landscapes and geographical patterns, and memories that reveal the identity of an Iowan in North Carolina.
World’s Most Adaptable Cornbread
1 1/2 cup cornmeal (any color)
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (can substitute with gluten-free flour)
6 tablespoons sugar (can substitute with honey or maple syrup + 1/8 tsp baking soda or powder)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/2 cup plain milk (can substitute with dairy-free milk of any kind)
2 large eggs (can substitute with vegan egg replacement)
1/2 cup canola oil (can substitute for other oil, butter, or margarine)
– Preheat the oven to 400°F. Oil a (9-inch) square baking dish and set it aside.
– In a large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a second large bowl, whisk together soy milk, eggs and oil. Add milk mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until just combined.
– Pour batter into the prepared dish and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.
Adapted from Whole Foods Market Dairy-Free Cornbread Recipe.