Monday, April 28, 2008

King Corn

It all started Sunday at noon, with this text to my friend Stef:

Im in over my head with this bbq. Can u come over around 3?

Actually, it all started last Fall, when I saw the trailer for the documentary King Corn. Two young filmmakers quit their jobs in Boston and move to Iowa for a year to plant, grow, and harvest a single acre of corn to find out how we as a species are now subsisting almost entirely on this one crop.

I knew imediately that I wanted to see it, but time got away from me, and I never saw it on the big screen.

Cut to April, 2008. I read the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and the whole first third of the book goes into incredible detail about how virtually everything we put into our bodies is somehow derived from corn.

It seemed like this particular area of interest was trying to get my attention. So I set out to document a little experiment of my own: Create an entire Spring BBQ menu, using ONLY ingredients that contain no trace of corn, and serve it while we have a screening of the documentary.

Adam drizzles the finishing touches of EVOO on his hummus.

Lindsay gets the party started.

The corn-free menu turned out to be much, much harder than it sounds. When you consider that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is in about 99% of processed food (things like buns and condiments included), not to mention that almost all meat we buy in America was fed on a diet of corn, grocery shopping for this endeavor was no small feat.

FEARLESS FACTOR: A billion. When you take into account the stringent menu guidelines, and the fact that my guest list started at 10 and grew like corn in June into about 20, it's easy to see why I sent Stef the frantic text (special thanks to her, my hard-working sous-chef).

I wanted to grill mini-burgers (sliders being a popular Chicago bar treat), so I headed to Whole Foods to find some grass-fed beef. Here's a re-creation of my conversation with the butcher:

ME: Hi, I'm trying to do this themed BBQ where everything has to be, er--anyway, do you have any grass-fed beef?

HIM: Actually, no, we don't have any.

ME: [Crestfallen] Oh.

HIM: But our bison is grass-fed.

ME: I'll take 4 pounds.

I also planned out a pasta salad and from-scratch crockpot baked beans, and Adam brought his world-famous hummus, which got demolished in literally under 5 minutes. (Special thanks, Adam, and also to Lindsay, who brought the most amazing Lemon Bars--note to self, Lemon Bars are not an acceptable breakfast food).

Making the baked beans was fully a two-day process: soaking the beans overnight, then letting them simmer all day in the crockpot takes some time. I also had to be careful to buy only organic ketchup, since most ketchup is packed with high-fructose corn syrup. (I'd like to take a moment to address any of you who are caught up in the ongoing Heinz vs. Hunt's ketchup debate. Organic ketchup tastes about 1000% better than either of those brands, so consider this my conscientitious objection to the condiment war.) I would've also liked to add some pork, but finding pork that hasn't been grain-fed (wild pigs, I found out, eat acorns) is impossible. So the beans became vegetarian.

The pasta salad was pretty easy to keep corn-free. Even the most processed pasta tends not to contain corn (but I bought organic just to be safe), and I added some veggies and goat cheese (admittedly, I cannot confirm that the goat who made our cheese was not fed corn, but I took some creative license).

I was careful to read the ingredient label on everything I bought, including the ciabatta rolls I used as hamburger buns. That's one great thing about living in a big city: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are always there when you want to throw a party with a needlessly complicated menu.

Veggie Trays by Stef.


2 12-oz. bags tri-colored veggie pasta (rotini or other noodle)
12 oz. log goat cheese
1 English cucumber
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved and seeded
2 c. arugula leaves
juice of 1 Meyer lemon
1/4 c. EVOO
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes to taste
2 T. chopped fresh dill
2 T. chopped fresh basil
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. mustard

Cut the cucumber in half, then slice it into thin half-moons. Halve and seed the tomatoes. Place in a bowl and add some salt. Let sit in the fridge for about an hour, until the salt has drawn the water out. Drain in a colander, and rinse. Shake dry. Boil the pasta. While it's cooking, in a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, salt and pepper, dill, basil, red pepper flakes, sugar, and mustard. Whisk in the EVOO slowly. Set aside. Drain the pasta, and pour it back in its cooking pot. Add the cucumbers, tomoatoes, and arugula. Working quickly so that the pasta stays warm, stir in the dressing mixture and crumble in the goat cheese, and stir until the goat cheese is melted and evenly coats the pasta (it will look like a creamy mayo-based pasta salad). Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Kelly and Adam!


2 lbs. dried beans (I used 1 lb. small red beans and 1 lb. pinto beans, but navy beans are the ones most commonly used)
1 bottle organic ketchup
1 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. mustard
2 T. Worchestershire sauce
1 c. bean cooking liquid
salt and pepper

In a large pot, soak the beans in the fridge overnight with enough water to generously cover the beans. The next day, simmer the beans in the same water they soaked in for about 2 hours (do not salt the water), until they begin to get tender. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Place the beans in the crockpot. Pour in the rest of the ingredients and stir until well-mixed. Put the crockpot on low and cook for about 4 hours, then turn the crockpot on high and cook for 2 more hours, stirring occasionally. The last 30 minutes and while serving, leave the lid of the crockpot off so the beans thicken.

If I were the type of woman who used the word "Tablescape," I'd use that word now.

BISON MINI-BURGERS ON CIABATTA ROLLS (I've cut the recipe I made down to 1/4 of what I made, so this is based on 1 lb. of meat)

1 lb. ground bison (buffalo) meat
generous drizzle olive oil
1 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
salt and pepper for grilling
sliced Cheddar cheese (optional)
6 bake-at-home Ciabatta rolls (or other bun)
Toppings like tomato, lettuce, ketchup, mayo, etc.

Get the charcoal grill ready about an hour before you want to start cooking. Add the olive oil and Worchestershire sauce to the meat and squish around until it's incorporated. Form into six mini-burgers. Salt and pepper both sides of each patty, and place on the grill. Cook about 3 minutes on each side, or until desired doneness. When you flip them, add the cheese to the top and let it melt while the other side cooks. Serve on the buns with desired toppings.

Portobello "burgers" for the veg-heads.

Always season your meat.


The film was pretty good. It wasn't an all-out gross-fest like Fast Food Nation, but it was just as eye-opening. It got a little shaky when they showed the cow with a hole in its side (caused by acidosis, a condition cows get when they're fed an unnatural diet of--you guessed it--corn), making the contents of its stomach available for all to see (and scoop out). (Thank you, grass-fed bison farmers of the world!)

Had I actually bothered watching the film that I dragged all my friends into BEFORE the much-ballyhooed screening, I might have thought twice about planning an entire party around it. It wasn't boring, but it wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, either (truth be told, at times, it was kind of a downer). It lacked the caustic voiceover acrobatics and contrived mega-drama of a Michael Moore film, but was shocking in its own right. I think that a lifelong aversion to soda (basically HFCS and food coloring in a can, and the best possible way to cause obesity and diabetes) is the most lasting effect it will have on my consumption. (Interestingly, rendering irrelevant the Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola debate--peace at last, and all thanks to corn!).

So, since there were far too many judges to record their comments here (although feel free, Corn-Free guests, to comment here on the blog), I'll have to make my own decisions:

THE FILM: 7 stars.

THE FOOD: 8 stars.

Self-congratulatory? Perhaps. But I'd argue that without a good solid menu, I'd have been hard-pressed to get 20 people into my living room to watch a documentary about farming.

I proved to myself (once again), that try as I might, I simply do not like arugula. I want to SO BADLY! It's so...elegant! And delicate! Peppery! Trendy! But alas, if I could do it over again, I'd leave it out of my otherwise delicious pasta salad. The beans came out great, to my utter shock, and despite seeming highly time-consuming, they're actually very low-maintenance. I might have to make this a signature BBQ dish. As for the burgers, again, I was shocked to find them quite tasty. I was worried all along that bison, being a very lean meat, would dry out on the grill, which is why I preemptively added the olive oil. It seemed to work, and with all the great things bison has going for it nutritionally, I could be a full-on bison believer (I am, at the very least, a grass-fed believer, thanks to the open-wound-cow-stomach-thing).

THE BOTTOM LINE: Fast Food Nation didn't succeed in turning me off to (scrumptious) Egg McMuffins forever. And only time will tell if I will take the time to seek out grass-fed bison (or beef, if it's available) in the long run. But what the film did (and what I suspect was its intention) was to further make us all aware that what you see isn't always what you get, and that it does take a higher level of consciousness to eat truly healthfully (not just for the health of our bodies but the health of the bodies that end up inside ours, as well).

I'll end with a quote from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and one of the interviewees on the film):
"Everything we eat is no more and no less than the body of the world."

Ross proudly showcases the contraband.

Thanks to guests and blans alike. More soon.


debby said...

I love to shop at They have all kinds of healthy and natural kosher food and snacks. The stuff is fresh and low prices.
btw I used a coupon bldc08 try it

Anonymous said...

Interesting read, but it sounds like the movie may have exaggerated the dangers of corn. There is no disagreeing that cheap grains like corn have led to more acidic environments in cow stomachs, but these acidic conditions lead to things like E. coli growth not holes that burn straight through the body. What the movie probably showed was a fistula - a surgically made hole that scientists use to see the inner workings of a cow's rumen. See for more information.

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