It feels odd and somewhat wrong to be talking about surplus corn when half the state of Iowa was recently underwater. But the fact is that the whole first section of this book was rooted in surplus corn, and so I’m afraid I’m constrained by the facts that were on the ground when the book was written. Luckily, though, Michael Pollan is forward-thinking, and the message in this particular chapter applies whether it’s a bumper year for corn or not.
I’m talking about hooch.
You see, recent events notwithstanding, it turns out that we Americans have seen excess corn before in our short but illustrious history. In the early 1800s, we had a shitload of corn, too, and we had a very ingenious way of dealing with the situation. We turned it into whiskey. Pollan writes:
“As the historian W.J. Rorabaugh tells the story in The Alcoholic Republic, we drank the hard stuff at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, before work and after and very often during. Employers were expected to supply spirits over the course of the workday; in fact, the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whiskey break called “the elevenses.” (Just to pronounce it makes you sound tipsy.) Except for a brief respite Sunday morning in church, Americans simply did not gather—whether for a barn raising or quilting bee, corn husking or political rally—without passing the whiskey jug."
That sounds freaking fantastic. So, let me get this straight. We’ve wasted precious decades putting our surplus corn into soda when we could have been putting it into whiskey? Why? WHY WHY WHY? I’m afraid the great taste of “lymon” will never hold a candle to bourbon straight up. Who even cares about Pepsi versus Coke unless they’re mixed with the good stuff? All I’m saying is if you have to choose a public health epidemic, obesity versus alcoholism, then I think the winner is clear. (Though, I think we might be able to make room for both if we really apply ourselves.)
But those poor Midwestern farmers. Too much corn, and you’re screwed. Not enough corn, and you’re screwed. It seems to me that Michael Pollan’s message to Iowa farmers is this. Start drinking. Whether its purpose is to level a towering mountain of corn, or to erase the image of a giant lake where your land should be, drink up. You’re going to need it.