What’s corn got to do with it?
At the beginning of my new novel, Oink. A Food for Thought Mystery, Emily Addams, foodie professor of women’s studies at Arbor State—a land grant university in Northern California — finds herself an unlikely suspect in the poisoning of Peter Elliott, professor of plant biology and a hot shot developer of a new genetically modified corn. How did her corn bread (unmistakable for its goat cheese and caramelized onions) end up in his hand as he lay on the smelly muck of the university’s historic hog yard? Emily must figure out how before the police close in on her.
As she comes under suspicion, Emily and her comrades in women’s and ethnic studies are fighting the administration’s attempt to defund their programs and run Arbor State more like a corporation than a place of higher learning. Her efforts to save her own skin and to protect the campus community she loves come together as Emily and her colleagues launch their own investigation to find out who really slipped the professor a piece of cornbread spiked with pesticide. It is this community — fueled by tasty food — that successfully resists the newly corporate culture, saves the women’s and ethnic studies programs, and helps Emily solve the mystery. Not incidentally, the novel comes with eighteen recipes for dishes made from corn.
“Why corn?” You might ask. Why not, say, chocolate? While chocolate has an honored place across the globe, corn is more of a staple. In many cultures corn or maize is also associated with life, fertility, and rebirth and, in a novel that emphasizes the importance of caring community and renewal — in the face of growing self-interest, competition, and greed (oink, oink!) — the recurring presence of corn serves to emphasize human connection.
Some forms of connection through corn are familial and personal. Emily bonds with her 10-year-old daughter, Polly, by cooking polenta with tomato concasse in a kitchen that soon begins to smell of baking corn and melting cheese. Emily’s female colleagues fall, quite naturally, into talking about food and, given the poisoning, about corn bread in particular. Isobel Fuentes-Rivera of Native American Studies tries to console Emily:
“Remember, we don’t know yet that it was your corn bread. Lots of people make corn bread. I make it with blue cornmeal or with cranberries. The Iroquois boiled theirs.”
Food talk also breaks the tension between women who are strangers to each other. When two female police officers turn up at Emily’s house to question her about the poisoning, the women fall into a conversation about their family’s corn bread. Recipes for black southern cornbread and for cornbread with jalapeños are included in the book. It makes sense, then, that Emily’s community (faculty from women’s and ethnic studies) eat something made of corn almost every time they meet. Food can connect people politically as well.
That the dishes come from European American, African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latina/o food traditions celebrates the multicultural nature of Emily’s community, a community with which the reader is invited to identify through the pleasure of reading scenes in which community members share spicy enchiladas with corn tortillas, crunchy homemade corn chips, and sweet corn pudding. The recipes which come at the end of each chapter further invite the reader into this fictional community by suggesting that she or he can prepare the same dish, with all its communal associations, in her or his own kitchen.
Since pigs eat corn as well, corn also becomes an emblem of connection between the human and the animal worlds. When Emily first learns about the cornbread in Peter’s hand, she hopes against hope that it is not really corn bread but something else yellow: “Wait, pigs ate corn too. Had his hand been full of feed for hogs?” In Oink, corn also suggests the interconnection of humans and plants and, indeed, the whole natural world. Helena White, Emily’s fashion studies colleague, has corn silk hair. The scientist Tess Ryan reminds Emily of “a young and vigorous stalk of corn.” Didn’t Michael Pollan tell us that corn adapted itself to humans and vice versa? Feeling connected to nature can re-enforce the value of human community as well.
Although corn most often evokes positive connection in Oink, it can be turned to bad ends. Peter Elliott is secretly working for Syndicon, a giant biotechnology corporation, to produce a genetically engineered corn for pigs. Syndicon’s interest lies only in making a profit, and it goes after Peter after he threatens to go public with the fact that his insect and pesticide resistant feed is not sitting well with actual hogs. Scientists like Tess Ryan, in contrast, work on genetically engineered food with the goal of ending world hunger. Corn can be what you make it.
Sometimes, of course, you can’t control the effects of your good intentions either — even with corn. Emily brings her famous corn bread to a Native American studies reception the evening before Peter is found comatose in the hog yard, and soon everyone at the reception is under suspicion for attempted murder. Emily had always thought of sharing food as a way of bringing people together across their differences. Now, the whole meaning of her gift may have been turned on its head. “Had any baking project ever gone so wrong?” Efforts at connecting don’t always work.
Despite evil intentions and life’s nasty surprises, however, corn is mainly tied to good relationships, and, at the end of Oink, as Emily makes corn pudding for her community’s celebration of El Dia de Los Muertos, she reflects once more on the way corn ties her to different cultures and to other beings throughout the ages: “I wasn’t grinding corn as millions of women before me had done — thank God for the food processor. But this labor of planning the dish, gathering the ingredients, mixing the batter, baking — all the while anticipating the pleasure of those I would feed —linked me to women throughout the ages. And also to men.”
El Dia de los Muertos, at which Emily’s corn pudding is served, is a day that reminds us of our own mortality while also comforting us with the richness and pleasures of community, and this raises an implicit question. Given human frailties and mortality and the empowering nature of community in our facing them, do we want to spend our days in the rabid pursuit of profit and self-interest or do we want to strive for more communal ways of being?