Food historian offers interesting kernels about corn culture

Corn, which began as a weedy grass growing in Mexico, possesses a strange trait known as a “jumping gene.” Find out more about its history on April 16 in Union.[]

Looking back on it, Cynthia Clampitt said she’s always had an interest in food.

“It was one of those things that was a family culture. My grandmother graduated in 1912 from the University of Toronto with degrees in food science and home economics,” she said. “My dad, who flew in the Army Air Corps and then joined the airlines, traveled a good bit. We went with and learned a lot about food.”

Clampitt, likewise, is doing her part to educate the public as part of this year’s Sampler Lecture Series. At 7 p.m. April 16 at the McHenry County Historical Museum, 6422 Main St. in Union, she presents “How Corn Changed itself and then Changed Everything Else.” The program is made possible by a grant from Illinois Humanities.

Corn, which began as a weedy grass growing in Mexico, possesses a strange trait known as a “jumping gene.” Over time, it transformed itself into a cereal grass that we’ve come to know as maize, and then as corn.

Illinois is second only to Iowa, as an American corn-growing state. And McHenry County outpaces all other collar counties in corn production. Illinois and corn are inexorably linked, yet few realize its historic impact and why it remains so vital today.

From vampires to the Chicago Bears to Henry Ford. Corn is involved in everything,” Clampitt said. “The people who settled here learned corn culture from the Native Americans, and part of that corn culture is how to free up niacin.”

Indians knew that alkali – such as from wood ash – and lime, or calcium carbonate, are needed to liberate the essential B vitamin. But not all of the Europeans who adopted corn as a staple followed such practices. That led to “pellagra,” a disease caused by niacin deficiency. Among its many symptoms is sensitivity to light.

“Five hundred years ago, one of the countries that glommed on to corn was Romania,” Clampitt said. “The peasants who had been eating millet – which tastes like a combination of dust and potting soil – got access to corn and pellagra became a big problem.”

The vampire legend suddenly received added life from an unexpected source.

“There are these little pieces that people don’t know about,” Clampitt said. “Corn is in our literature, poetry and music.”

About 25 years ago, the Palatine resident began writing combining her passion for food and travel, with a love of history. She wrote about travel and food for magazines, as well as a food history column. She also wrote “real history” for textbooks, and worked for the likes of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia and National Geographic Learning. But slowly, she began to refocus on home.

“I started to realize that the Midwest is pretty cool. It’s a fabulous region and it is seriously neglected,” Clampitt said. “Someone had to stand up for the Midwest and it might as well be me.”

One outcome of those efforts was her 2015 book, “Midwest Maize.” She also blogs about her food and travel experiences on

“If you travel a lot and read a lot of history, you realize that food is the motivator or the fuel for pretty much everything that has ever happened,” Clampitt said. “It is the story of the United States. … It’s part of the literature and culture; everything around you. People need to know.”

A $10 donation is requested, payable at the door. For information, call 815-923-2267 or visit