Beautiful Corn: America's Original Grain from Seed to Plate

Reviewed by: Rachael Baker
Beautiful Corn book review A\J Beautiful Corn \ Anthony Boutard

This historical exploration and how-to growing guide will scratch the itch of market and backyard gardeners alike. Beautiful Corn covers everything from harvesting to meal preparation, and offers useful advice that applies to household kitchens, backyard garden plots and larger acreage projects. Those interested in seed production will benefit from Boutard’s experimentation with reintroducing old varieties of corn on his Oregon farm. And his arguments for generating diversity rather than simply saving seed lends a fresh perspective to the depletion of species variety and the importance of rejuvenation.

Unlike other contemporary food writers, Boutard spends little time engaging with or presenting arguments about genetic modification or the environmental impact of monoculture crops. He believes that “decades of corn breeding guided by corporate profit has yielded a plant less nutritious and less satisfying” than the varieties that were produced by original breeders. But the sustainable-food advocate ultimately remains indifferent to the industrial-scale approach, arguing that if “they want to dedicate years to developing a new F1 hybrid sweet corn, and if they want to put a silly name on it, who are we to complain?”

Much of the recent literature about corn critically engages organic growing practices and the vilification of corn-based products, however Boutard seeks to foster an appreciation of corn by sharing his own sense of nostalgia. He proclaims his interest in reintroducing rare corn varieties and yearns for traditions that have virtually disappeared, but which once formed part of a culture of exchange and celebration. He fondly describes the communal “corn frolic” harvests that took place in 18th century New England and the nearly extinct practice of tolling, wherein grist millers would take a percentage of their customers’ grain instead of charging a cash fee for grinding it. Boutard clearly longs for a return to the relationship growers had with the crop before it was transformed into a multi-use, highly monopolized commodity used widely in food products, fuel, adhesives and medicine.

Unfortunately, Boutard’s attention to the global migration of specific corn varieties during the past five centuries lacks a broader political contextualization of how it emerged as a globally available food. Corn was one of the first items to be traded between different continents, and while Boutard recognizes that there was a global movement to proliferate corn, more focus on the tension behind that movement is needed. Along with African slaves, sugar and artillery, corn helped forge the transcontinental trade routes that enabled the global reach of capitalism, and it continues to be used as a device of that economic system. Boutard uses neutral language to depict the impacts of this history (which include cultural dependency and exploitation) and fails to acknowledge corn’s global availability as a product of larger colonial ambitions.

That said, the author’s efforts to make the book more approachable is also one of its strengths. Sweet and savoury recipes serve as interludes to an otherwise biological and agricultural focus, and a series of photographs and sketches of colourful, shapely corn varieties further enliven its pages. The grain’s range of shapes, sizes and colours will also challenge the average sweet corn consumer’s imagination, and reveal the inherent beauty of this ancient grass to those who already enjoy its many varieties.  

Most readers will already know that this resilient grain has been transformed into a global staple. What Boutard offers in Beautiful Corn is a workbook for changing our relationship (as both producers and consumers) to a crop that has strayed from its wholesome origins by keeping pace with the globalized food economy. 

Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate, Anthony Boutard, Lillooet: New Society Publishers, 2012, 224 pages

This review originally appeared in Art & Media, Issue 39.3. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information


Rachael Baker lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and studies urban land-use practices.

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