Settlers, Corn, Whiskey, HFCS and other corn facts

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I-GOR
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Settlers, Corn, Whiskey, HFCS and other corn facts

Post by I-GOR » Thu Sep 03, 2009 12:15 pm

For more info about types of corn, see http://homedistiller.org/forum/viewtopi ... =34&t=9847
http://homedistiller.org/forum/viewtopi ... =34&t=5960

Excerpts from The Omnivore’s Delimma, by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, 2007

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Americans began drinking more than they ever had before or since, embarking on a collective bender that confronted the young republic with its first major public health crisis – the obesity epidemic of its day. Corn whiskey, suddenly superabundant and cheap, became the drink of choice, and in 1820 the typical American was putting away half a pint of the stuff every day. That comes to more than five gallons of spirits a year for every man, woman, and child in America. The figure today is less than one.

As the historian W. J. Rorabaugh tells the story in The Alcoholic Republic, we drank the hard stuff at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, before work and after and very often during. Employers were expected to supply spirits over the course of the workday; in fact, the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whiskey break called “the elevenses.” (Just to pronounce it makes you tipsy). Except for a brief respite Sunday morning in church, Americans simply did not gather – whether for a barn raising or quilting bee, corn husking or political rally – without passing the whiskey jug. Visitors from Europe – hardly models of sobriety themselves – marveled at the free flow of American spirits. “Come on then, if you love toping,” the journalist Willam Cobbett wrote his fellow Englishmen in a dispatch from America. “For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence”.

The results of all this topin were entirely predictable; a rising tide of public drunkenness, violence, and family abandonment, and a spike in alcohol-related diseases. Several of the Found Fathers – including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – denounced the excesses of the “Alcoholic Republic,” inaugurating and American quarrel over drinking that would culminate a century later in Prohibition.

But the outcome of our national drinking binge is not nearly as relevant to our own situation as it’s underlying cause. Which, put simply, was this: American farmers were producing far too much corn. This was particularly true in the newly settled regions west of the Appalachians, where fertile, virgin soils yielded one bumper crop after another. A mountain of surplus corn piled up in the Ohio River Valley. Much as today, the astounding productivity of American farmers proved to be their own worst enemy, as well as a threat to public health. For when yields rise, the market is flooded with grain, and its price collapses. What happens next? The excess biomass works like a vacuum in reverse: sooner or later, clever marketers will figure out a way to induce the human omnivore to consume the surfeit of cheap calories.

As it is today, the clever thing to do with all that cheap corn was to process it – specifically, to distill it into alcohol. The Appalachian range made it difficult and expensive to transport surplus corn from the lightly settled Ohio River Valley to the more populous markets of the East, so farmers turned their corn into whiskey - a more compact and portable, and less perishable, value added commodity. Before long the price of whiskey plummeted to the point that people could afford to drink it by the pint. Which is precisely what they did.

The parallels [today] with the alcoholic republic of two hundred years ago are hard to miss. Before the changes in lifestyle, before the clever marketing, comes the mountain of cheap corn. Corn accounts for most of the surplus calories we’re growing and the most of the surplus calories we’re eating. As then, the smart thing to do with all that surplus grain is to process it, transform the cheap commodity into a value-added consumer product – a denser and more durable package of calories. In the 1820’s the processing options were basically two: You could turn your corn into pork or alcohol. Today there are hundreds of things a processor can do with corn: They can use it to make everything from chicken nuggets and Big Macs to emulsifiers and nutraceuticals. Yet since the human desire for sweetness surpasses even our desire for intoxication, the cleverest thing to do with a bushel of corn is to refine it into thirty-three pound of high-fructose corn syrup.

That at least is what we’re doing with about 530 million bushels of the annual corn harvesting – turning out 17.5 billion pounds of high-fructose corn syrup.


Carbon is the most common element in our bodies—indeed, in all
living things on earth. We earthlings are, as they say, a carbon life form.
(As one scientist put it, carbon supplies life’s quantity, since it is the
main structural element in living matter, while much scarcer nitrogen
supplies its quality—but more on that later.) Originally, the atoms of
carbon from which we’re made were floating in the air, part of a carbon
dioxide molecule. The only way to recruit these carbon atoms for
the molecules necessary to support life—organic compounds such as
carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins—is by means of photosynthesis.
Using sunlight as a catalyst the green cells of plants combine carbon
atoms taken from the air with water and elements drawn from the soil
to form the simple organic compounds that stand at the base of every
food chain. It is more than a figure of speech to say that plants create
life out of thin air.

But corn goes about this procedure a little differently than most
other plants, a difference that not only renders the plant more efficient
than most, but happens also to preserve the identity of the carbon
atoms it recruits, even after they’ve been transformed into things like
Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers, not to mention the human
bodies nourished on those things. Where most plants during photosynthesis
create compounds that have three carbon atoms, corn (along
with a small handful of other species) make compounds that have four:
hence “C-4,” the botanical nickname for this gifted group of plants,
which wasn’t identified until the 1970s.

The C-4 trick represents an important economy for a plant, giving
it an advantage, especially in areas where water is scarce and temperatures
high. In order to gather carbon atoms from the air, a plant has to
open its stomata, the microscopic orifices in the leaves through which
plants both take in and exhaust gases. Every time a stoma opens to admit
carbon dioxide precious molecules of water escape. It’s as though
every time you opened your mouth to eat you lost a quantity of blood.
Ideally, you would open your mouth as seldom as possible, ingesting as
much food as you could with every bite. This is essentially what a C-4
plant does. By recruiting extra atoms of carbon during each instance of
photosynthesis, the corn plant is able to limit its loss of water and
“fix”—that is, take from the atmosphere and link in a useful molecule—
significantly more carbon than other plants.

At its most basic, the story of life on earth is the competition among
species to capture and store as much energy as possible—either directly
from the sun, in the case of plants, or, in the case of animals, by eating
plants and plant eaters. The energy is stored in the form of carbon molecules
and measured in calories: The calories we eat, whether in an ear
of corn or a steak, represent packets of energy once captured by a plant.
The C-4 trick helps explain the corn plant’s success in this competition:
Few plants can manufacture quite as much organic matter (and calo-
ries) from the same quantities of sunlight and water and basic elements
as corn. (Ninety-seven percent of what a corn plant is comes from the
air, three percent from the ground.)

The trick doesn’t yet, however, explain how a scientist could tell
that a given carbon atom in a human bone owes its presence there to a
photosynthetic event that occurred in the leaf of one kind of plant and
not another—in corn, say, instead of lettuce or wheat. That’s because all
carbon is not created equal. Some carbon atoms called isotopes, have
more than the usual complement of six protons and six neutrons, giving
them a slightly different atomic weight. C-13, for examples, has six
protons and seven neutrons. (Hence “C-13.”) For whatever reason,
when a C-4 plant goes scavenging for its four-packs of carbon, it takes in
more carbon 13 than ordinary—C-3—plants, which exhibit a marked
preference for the more common carbon 12. Greedy for carbon, C-4
plants can’t afford to discriminate among isotopes, and so end up with
relatively more carbon 13.The higher the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon
12 in a person’s flesh, the more corn has been in his diet—or in the diet
of the animals he or she ate. (As far as we’re concerned, it makes little
difference whether we consume relatively more or less carbon 13.)

One would expect to find a comparatively great deal of carbon 13
in the flesh of people whose staple food of choice is corn—Mexicans,
most famously. Americans eat much more wheat than corn—114 pounds
of wheat flour per person per year, compared to 11 pounds of corn
flour. The Europeans who colonized America regarded themselves as
wheat people, in contrast to the native corn people they encountered;
wheat in the West has always been considered the more refined, or civilized,
grain. If asked to choose, most of us would probably still consider
ourselves wheat people (except perhaps the proud corn-fed
Midwesterners, and they don’t know the half of it), though by now the
whole idea of identifying with a plant at all strikes us as a little old fashioned.

Beef people sounds more like it, though nowadays chicken
people, which sounds not nearly so good, is probably closer to the
truth of the matter. But carbon 13 doesn’t lie, and researchers who have
compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of North Americans to those
in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North
who are the true people of corn. “When you look at the isotope ratios,”
Todd Dawson, a Berkeley biologist who’s done this sort of research,
told me, “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” Compared
to us, Mexicans today consume a far more varied diet: the animals
they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding
corn to livestock as a sacrilege); much of their protein comes from
legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar.

So that’s us: processed corn, walking.


THE RISE OF ZEA MAYS

Corn’s success might seem fated in retrospect, but it was not something
anyone would have predicted on that day in May 1493 when
Columbus first described the botanical oddity he had encountered in
the New World to Isabella’s court. He told of a towering grass with an
ear as thick as a man’s arm, to which grains were “affixed by nature in
a wondrous manner and in form and size like garden peas, white when
young.”Wondrous, perhaps, yet this was, after all, the staple food of a
people that would shortly be vanquished and all but exterminated.

By all rights, maize should have shared the fate of the bison, despised
and targeted for elimination precisely because it was “the Indians’
commissary,” in the words of General Philip Sheridan, commander
of the armies of the West. Exterminate the species, Sheridan advised,
and “[t]hen your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the
festive cowboy.” In outline Sheridan’s plan was the plan for the whole
continent: The white man brought his own “associate species” with
him to the New World—cattle and apples, pigs and wheat, not to mention
his accustomed weeds and microbes—and wherever possible helped
them to displace the native plants and animals allied with the Indian.
More even than the rifle, it was this biotic army that did the most to defeat
the Indians.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant maize in the spring of
1621, and the colonists immediately recognized its value: No other
plant could produce quite as much food quite as fast on a given patch
of New World ground as this Indian corn. (Originally “corn” was a
generic English word for any kind of grain, even a grain of salt—hence
“corned beef”; it didn’t take long for Zea mays to appropriate the word
for itself, at least in America.) The fact that the plant was so well adapted
to the climate and soils of North America gave it an edge over European
grains, even if it did make a disappointingly earthbound bread. Centuries
before the Pilgrims arrived the plant had already spread north
from central Mexico, where it is thought to have originated, all the way
to New England, where Indians were probably cultivating it by 1000.
Along the way, the plant—whose prodigious genetic variability allows
it to adapt rapidly to new conditions—made itself at home in virtually
every microclimate in North America; hot or cold, dry or wet, sandy
soil or heavy, short day or long, corn, with the help of its Native American
allies, evolved whatever traits it needed to survive and flourish.

Lacking any such local experience, wheat struggled to adapt to the
continent’s harsh climate, and yields were often so poor that the settlements
that stood by the old world staple often perished. Planted, a single
corn seed yielded more than 150 fat kernels, often as many as 300,
while the return on a seed of wheat, when all went well, was something
less than 50:1. (At a time when land was abundant and labor
scarce, agricultural yields were calculated on a per-seed-sown basis.)

Corn won over the wheat people because of its versatility, prized especially
in new settlements far from civilization. This one plant supplied
settlers with a ready-to-eat vegetable and a storable grain, a source
of fiber and animal feed, a heating fuel and an intoxicant. Corn could
be eaten fresh off the cob (“green”) within months after planting, or
dried on the stalk in fall, stored indefinitely, and ground into flour as
needed. Mashed and fermented, corn could be brewed into beer or distilled
into whiskey, for a time the only source of alcohol on the frontier.
(Whiskey and pork were both regarded as “concentrated corn,” the latter
a concentrate of its protein, the former of its calories; both had the
virtue of reducing corn’s bulk and raising its price.) No part of the big
grass went to waste: The husks could be woven into rugs and twine; the
leaves and stalks made good silage for livestock; the shelled cobs were
burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet
paper.


CORN SEX

Maize is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, botanical terms that don’t
begin to describe the beauty and wonder of corn sex. The tassel at the
top of the plant houses the male organs, hundreds of pendant anthers
that over the course of a few summer days release a superabundance of
powdery yellow pollen: 14 million to 18 million grains per plant,
20,000 for every potential kernel. (“Better safe than sorry” or “more is
more,” being nature’s general rule for male genes.) A meter or so below
await the female organs, hundreds of minuscule flowers arranged
in tidy rows along a tiny, sheathed cob that juts upward from the stalk
at the crotch of a leaf midway between tassel and earth. That the male
anthers resemble flowers and the female cob a phallus is not the only
oddity in the sex life of corn.

Each of the four hundred to eight hundred flowers on a cob has the
potential to develop into a kernel—but only if a grain of pollen can find
its way to its egg, a task complicated by the distance the pollen has to
travel and the intervening husk in which the cob is tightly wrapped. To
surmount this last problem, each flower sends out through the tip of
the husk a single, sticky strand of silk (technically its “style”) to snag its
own grain of pollen. The silks emerge from the husk on the very day the
tassel is set to shower its yellow dust.

What happens next is very strange. After a grain of pollen has fallen
through the air and alighted on the moistened tip of silk, its nucleus divides
in two, creating a pair of twins, each with the same set of genes
but a completely different role to perform in the creation of the kernel.
The first twin’s job is to tunnel a microscopic tube down through the
center of the silk thread. Then its clone slides down through the tunnel,
past the husk, and into the waiting flower, a journey of between six and
eight inches that takes several hours to complete. Upon arrival in the
flower the second twin fuses with the egg to form the embryo—the
germ of the future kernel. Then the first twin follows, entering the now
fertilized flower, where it sets about forming the endosperm—the big,
starchy part of the kernel. Every kernel of corn is the product of this
intricate ménage à trois; the tiny, stunted kernels you often see at the
narrow end of a cob are flowers whose silk no pollen grain ever penetrated.
Within a day of conception, the now superfluous silk dries up,
eventually turning reddish brown; fifty or so days later, the kernels are
mature.

The mechanics of corn sex, and in particular the great distance over
open space corn pollen must travel to complete its mission, go a long
way toward accounting for the success of maize’s alliance with humankind.
It’s a simple matter for a human to get between a corn plant’s
pollen and its flower, and only a short step from there to deliberately
crossing one corn plant with another with an eye to encouraging specific
traits in the offspring. Long before scientists understood hybridization,
Native Americans had discovered that by taking the pollen
from one corn plant’s tassel and dusting it on the silks of another, they
could create new plants that combined the traits of both parents. Indians
were the world’s first plant breeders, developing literally thousands
of distinct cultivars for every conceivable use and environment.

Early in the twentieth century American
corn breeders figured out how to bring corn reproduction under
firm control, and to protect the seed from copiers. The breeders discovered
that when they crossed two corn plants that had come from inbred
lines—from ancestors that had themselves been exclusively self pollinated
for several generations—the hybrid offspring displayed
some highly unusual characteristics. First, all the seeds in that first generation
(F-1, in the plant breeder’s vocabulary) produced genetically
identical plants—a trait that, among other things, facilitates mechanization.
Second, those plants exhibited heterosis, or hybrid vigor—
better yields than either of their parents. But most important of all, they
found that the seeds produced by these seeds did not come true—the
plants in the second (F-2) generation bore little resemblance to the
plants in the first. Specifically, their yields plummeted by as much as a
third, making their seeds virtually worthless.

Hybrid corn now offered its breeders what no other plant at that
time could: the biological equivalent of a patent. Farmers now had to
buy seeds every spring; instead of depending upon their plants to reproduce
themselves, they now depended on a corporation. The corporation,
assured for the first time of a return on its investment in breeding,
showered corn with attention—R & D, promotion, advertising—and the
plant responded, multiplying its fruitfulness year after year. With the
advent of the F-1 hybrid, a technology with the power to remake nature
in the image of capitalism, Zea mays entered the industrial age and,
in time, it brought the whole American food chain with it.

About one third the corn grown in North America funnels through two companies,
Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (the largest privately held corporation in the world).

cob
Distiller
Posts: 1958
Joined: Sun Jul 26, 2009 4:38 pm
Location: little puffs of dust where my feet used to be

Re: Settlers, Corn, Whiskey, HFCS and other corn facts

Post by cob » Thu Sep 03, 2009 4:06 pm

an acre of corn transpires (releases to the atmosphere) approximatly 400,000 gallons of water in one growing season. that is about 4000 gallon per acre per day. cob
be water my friend

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