Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I learned from Michael Pollan (plus a recipe for Corn Mango Salsa)

On Thursdays, the farmer's market extends to Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Although there are less vendors than the Lyndale location, there is still plenty of variety among the stalls. Last week, corn was on my mind. I figured better pick some up before the season's over.

Whenever I think of corn, I can 't help but be reminded of Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. Pollan describes in depth how corn rose from a weed to become one of the most successful species in the plant kingdom, with the help of industrial technology. He also provides good support for organic farming, highlighting that depending on the earth and the sun instead of synthetic fertilizers benefits not only our natural biologies but helps improve the condition of so many places on the planet that have been destroyed by industrial farming, or I should say ruthless industrial farming practices.

But the one point that really resonated with me was the comparison between Mexicans and North Americans. According to him, the descendants of the traditional Mayans today still refer to themselves as the corn people because of how dependent their diets were on corn. The startling fact, he pointed out, was that while the North American diet is not corn centric (in the sense that the real corn - kernels and cobs - don't typically play a featuring role on our dinner tables as it still does in Mexican meals) we have a much higher carbon thirteen (C-13) isotope concentration is our bodies which means that we consume more corn that the Mayans.

Let me attempt to paraphrase Pollan's explanation: Scientists are able to determine this by analyzing a small piece of our hair or a fingernail. Humans get carbon from the food we eat. In nature, there are two isotopes (different atoms of the same element having the same number of protons and electrons but a different number of neutrons) of carbon: carbon 12 and carbon 13. Most plants, through photosynthesis, use carbon 12, transforming it into food, in particular compounds that, at the molecular level, contain three carbon atoms. These plants are called C-3 plants. Corn, on the other hand, is a C-4 plant: it creates compounds with four atoms of carbon. While corn does use some C-12, it takes in more of the C-13 isotope. Hence, the higher concentration of c-13 to c-12 in a person's body is indicative of the amount of corn in his/her diet. (Whew! Hope that made sense.)

How can it be that North Americans consume more C-13 than Mexicans whose diets are more reflective of a relationship with corn? Don't we eat more wheat, more potatoes, more meat? The answer lies in corn's industrial role as the basis for most processed foods, as food for livestock, in most cereals, in high fructose corn syrup. While we have mostly moved away from corn in its natural state, we have simply moved towards corn-based products. Traces of corn can be found in the most unlikely of foods. Take crackers for example, the ones advertised as thin, whole grain and comes in a variety of flavors. They contain at least three ingredients derived, through highly complex chemical procedures, from corn. The most notable: high fructose corn syrup (I'll save my wrath on this most harmful of sweeteners for another post.)

While this post might give the impression that I am against the continued propagation of corn, I'm not. I like corn. Especially sweet, boiled, Minnesota corn. But the perception that this grain is so entrenched in the vast majority of foods found on supermarkets shelves makes me nauseated. Of course, corn's new role has much to do with economics and this will not change until there is concerted effort to move away from processed towards whole and natural foods. How about simply learning to enjoy foods in their natural state? In trying to do so, I am finding that some of my best meals are those simple ones.

Corn Mango Salsa
Serves 3 to 4

2 boiled ears of corn
1 large mango
1 large cucumber
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp ground chilies
salt to taste

1. Carefully cut the corn kernels off the cob. Peel the mango and carefully slice off the flesh into cubes. Discard the seed. Peel and cube the cucumber. Place corn, mango, and cucumber in a large bowl along with the chopped onion, and cilantro.
2. Mix the lime juice, sugar, ground chilies, and salt. Pour unto the corn mixture. Toss well and serve.


Sophie said...

What a nice & lovely corn mango salsa!!

Gera @ SweetsFoods said...

This mango salsa is really appealing!



Anonymous said...

what a refreshing and creative salsa!

Natasha said...

Sophie, Gera, Anonymous.

Pairing corn with mango is different but it worked. Thanks!