“I’ve basically become a corn-averse vegan."

sadcorn.pngLast week, I wrote about my first seven days without corn. Trying to learn more about just how much of the stuff we consume, I swore off all corn-laced foods for a full week.

But as I sipped on cow’s milk and scrambled eggs for my omelets, I started to realize that the corn on package labels was only part of the story. More than half the corn produced in the United States isn’t used for human food—it’s fed to our animals. Eating a steak, in a sense, entails far more corn than drinking a soda. If I really wanted to call myself corn-free, I had a long way to go.

So this week, I’m upping the ante—no corn, or products from corn-fed animals, for seven full days.

It won't be easy. An extraordinarily small percentage of animals in this country are 100% corn-free. I learned from our intern Tressa that even the diets of “grass-fed” or “pastured” cows are often supplemented with corn. With sheep, goats, and chickens, it’s a similar story. Even farm-raised fish are often fed corn. Needless to say, not their natural diet. [Seven truly corn-free days, after the jump.]

So all dairy and meats are out, unless I can get the farmer himself to vouch for the feeding of his animals. Wild-caught fish are okay, as long as I trust whoever labels them as such. And fruits and veggies are fine, as always. But there's an awful lot more off the menu.

I have a few concerns. I spend a decent amount of time at the gym, and I’m worried about getting enough protein; I rely heavily on eggs and yogurt to refuel after workouts. I eat plenty of meat-free meals, but rarely go without some kind of animal protein. And spending so much time in the treat-filled Serious Eats office, I do question my own resolve. But I'll make it through.

Day One: Purging the Fridge

First things first: I cleaned out the fridge. All of last week’s banned items—processed bread, cheese, and all sorts of boxed goodies—were banished to the freezer or donated to my brother. But milk, eggs, chicken, cheese, and yogurt were off-limits, too. I was left with a limp head of broccoli and a week-old apple. Not the most promising start.

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The week's provisions.

Breakfast, after a shopping trip, was oatmeal with soy milk and brown sugar; lunch, a quick chickpea-tomato stew with a hunk of grain bread. I met a friend for coffee later that day and tried a soy cappuccino, mostly for curiosity’s sake. I couldn’t get past the unpleasant, chalky foam, but the milky coffee was all right. I’ll go for a latte next time.

For dinner, I grilled a small piece of wild-caught tuna—my butcher at the Gourmet Garage vouched for its origins—and topped it with a few slow-roasted tomato slices (á la Michele). A satisfying meal, though a bit more labor-intensive than my usual weekday regimen.

Day Two: The Greenmarket Experience

Wanted to Eat, But Couldn't:

In a word: everything. Cow’s milk, most yogurt, cream, eggs, butter (and any baked good with any of the above); most red meat, bacon, pork, ham, chicken, and lamb. In particular: biscuits, gingersnaps, bananas foster cake, pizza, farm-raised fish, anything from a convenience store, anything at a chain restaurant.

I live in a world of temptation—by which, of course, I mean the Serious Eats office. Pret a Manger sandwiches I can’t nibble; brownie bits I can’t try. Robyn gets an enormous care package of beef jerky and bacon. One of her friends sent her off to work with freshly baked gingersnaps. Erin opened a mystery box: biscuits and cinnamon rolls shipped straight from Sister Schubert’s. And I couldn’t eat a bite of it.

Sad and listless, I munched on dry almonds. My lunch of chickpea stew had been filling enough, but I didn’t feel satiated. I felt a headache coming on.

But later that afternoon, my faith was restored at the Union Square Greenmarket. I knew that my chances of finding corn-free animals were slim; most American cattle and sheep, Tressa had informed me, were fed on grain at least part of the year. I met several farmers who told me the same thing.

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The meat I can eat.

“Our male goats don’t eat corn,” explained a woman from the Patches of Star dairy. “But the milkers do. They graze most of the year, and feed on a combination of things in the winter— beet bull, sunflower seeds, and some natural corn. They need that extra little bit of fat to lactate.” It made perfect sense, and I have every intention of returning for goat’s milk ricotta. But for this week, corn is off-limits.

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My salvation.

I had grown quite discouraged before I finally happened upon Hawthorne Valley Farm. I explained my mission to the stand’s attendant, and he beamed. “No corn!” he crowed. “Our animals graze for as much of the year as they can, then switch to soy in the winter. But corn, never.”

I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I greedily read over their menu before I walked away with seven containers of yogurt and a fat pack of hot pork sausages. There would be meat on the grill tonight.

Day Three: Fighting Temptation

I want pizza.

Serious Eats benevolent overlord Ed Levine ordered two pies from Pizza Suprema, our go-to slice joint. One thin-crusted beauty with bubbling bronzed cheese; one upside-down pie. They smell incredible. They’re steaming hot. I’m starving. But I must desist.

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My lunch; their lunch. If envy is a sin, call me a sinner.

I try to content myself with my veggie sandwich, roasted tomatoes and grilled zucchini on hearty, healthy whole grain bread. I even drizzled on some olive oil that I’d been hoarding since my trip to Puglia. It’s one hell of a sandwich. But warm and greasy, it’s not.

After work, I meet friends at Ward III, a superior Tribeca lounge where the bartenders take pride in crafting drinks according to customer whims. I tipped bartender Kenneth off to my corn-free diet, but gin, berries, herbs and bitters were all in the clear. Corn syrup and corn alcohol don’t make for good cocktails, anyway.

A few hours later, too tired to bother with a proper dinner, I have oatmeal and another Hawthorne Valley yogurt. Can't get enough.

Day Four: In A Den of Serious Eaters

Two words: biscuit tasting.

If I worked out in the country, my grass-fed cow Bessie at my side—drinking her milk each morning, baking my own bread, grilling up the vegetable harvest—this week would be a walk in the park. (Er, farm.) I would be perfectly content with the fresh food at hand.

But no, I work at Serious Eats World Headquarters, where food flies in from all corners of the world—and very little of it is corn free.

Yesterday’s pizza incident was bad enough, and Day Two’s gingersnaps weren’t easy to turn down, either. But this afternoon, we had a biscuit tasting. Tressa made her Mississippi-born boyfriend’s grandmother’s recipe. Alaina baked up a mix from North Carolina. And Sister Schubert’s, Callie’s, and Marshall’s all overnighted biscuit dough from the Deep South. I’m a sucker for all things baked and buttery. But I couldn’t eat any of it.

From 10:00 AM on, I sat next to a red-clothed basket brimming with Tressa’s lovely biscuits. I could smell them. I could sense everyone’s delight as they stopped by for a snack. “Grace,” I moaned. “Just a nibble?” Ever vigilant, she scowled at me.

As biscuit hour approached, the air perfumed with the smell of yeast and butter, I wanted to cry. Never in my life would I be party to such an incredible biscuit feast.

But then! Ed walked in the door from lunch, and dropped a takeout box on the table. “Extra pizza from Co.

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Jim Lahey, I salute you.

The meatballs were out. The cheese-topped pies were out. But the pizza bianca! Flour, salt, oil, water, yeast—nothing else. And if Jim Lahey has one true skill, it’s crafting pizza bianca. Three minutes in the toaster oven and I was in pizza bianca bliss.

That evening, I hopped a bus to Boston. I usually grab something at the rest stop to tide me over until my late-night arrival, but neither Arby’s roast beef nor gas station snacks were going to be corn-free. I consoled myself with a glass of wine when I arrived.

Day Five: Mike and Patty, Corn-Free Friends

I woke up the next morning feeling conflicted. I wanted to stop by Mike and Patty’s, my favorite Boston breakfast shop, but didn’t know if there was anything on the menu I could eat. And how could I possibly stop in and not stay for breakfast? We headed over, though I wasn’t sure if I’d order anything but coffee.

I squeezed into their tiny shop. “Carey!” crowed Mike from his station over the griddle. “How’s the no-corn diet?” (Apparently, my reputation precedes me. Mike's a Serious Eats reader.)

“Well, the second week is much harder.”

“I’m trying to think of what we can get you for breakfast, if eggs and butter are out. Hey—do you like oatmeal?”

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Corn-free, and all for me.

Do I like oatmeal! I’d never had Mike and Patty’s, since I don't visit often and the rest of their menu is so phenomenal. But today, they cooked me steel-cut oats in soymilk, with tart dried cranberries, walnuts, and a dish of brown sugar. With strong coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice, I was in breakfast bliss.

“You know,” mused Mike, “we make a pretty awesome meat chili. Just tomatoes, spices, and meat. And the beef is 100% grass-fed.”

I hadn’t dared hope for such good fortune. But if there were ever a corner café that sourced corn-free ingredients, Mike and Patty’s would be it. I walked out clutching a snugly sealed tub of chili.

Later that afternoon, I snuck a forkful from the fridge. A thick, meaty sauce, subtly spiced, smooth like an Italian ragú. Even under the strong flavors, it was clear that this was superior beef.

“You know,” I said to my boyfriend, who’d grabbed a fork of his own, “we could put this over pasta.” I took another bite.

“Or get some tortillas. Flour ones, I guess.” Bite.

“Or at least heat it up.” Bite.

But then it was gone, cold, straight from the container. Some foods are too good to wait five more minutes for.

Day Six: Trouble in Commercial America

We went back the next morning.

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Mike and Patty's Montreal Hash. Any other week, I would've inhaled this.

Things I Was Delighted To Find:

Yogurt from grass-fed cows, pork sausages from grass-fed pigs, chili from grass-fed beef, lattes and oatmeal that made soymilk palatable.

Another bowl of Mike and Patty’s oatmeal kept me going into the late afternoon, when we drove down to Foxboro for an exhibition soccer game. I should have brought something to munch but when my stomach started grumbling around halftime, I was out of luck. Hot dogs, burgers, pizza—not a chance. The kids next to me happily chomped down popcorn. I’ve never found stadium popcorn worth eating, but I still eyed them with envy.

After the game, we waited out the stadium traffic at a sit-down mall seafood restaurant. At a chain like this, I knew that corn lurked everywhere. The rolls on the table with a slick of butter (or was that oil?) were out, and so was much of the menu. I had a few bites of locally caught bluefish, but couldn’t be sure about the mango salsa on the side. Still hungry, I reached for a handful of Trader Joe’s peanuts later that night.

Day Seven: A Soy Surprise

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Better than I thought a soy latte could ever be.

Early that morning, we stopped by our new friend Jared Mancini’s Sip Café, a gorgeous glassy space in downtown Boston’s Post Office Square. Jared and I had talked a lot about coffee and it was clear that he knew his stuff. I was dying for a real cappuccino, but he promised me that a soy latte would come out well. And I shouldn’t have doubted—the coffee’s smooth flavor and full body, without a trace of bitterness, emerged even through the soy. It was a perfect latte, though in my perfect world, it would have had cow’s milk.

Lunch was a bagel, veggie, and corn-free soy spread sandwich.

Unfortunately for me, we ended up at P.F. Chang's for dinner, where I could smell the corn syrup in the air. The only safe item I could find was the plain seared ahi appetizer. I pushed aside the sweet sauce (who knows what’s in there?) and the salad (there could have been corn oil, syrup, or stabilizers in the dressing). My boyfriend took a sip of his appallingly bad wine and made a face. “Don’t drink the White Zinfandel. It tastes like there’s corn syrup in it.”

Lessons Learned

  • Corn-free food is expensive.With the exception of Hawthorne Valley's surprisingly well-priced yogurt, I spent a lot more on grocery staples than I usually do. A loaf of grain bread (to be fair, a particularly large loaf) was $6.99; soy milk was $5 for two quarts. Three grass-fed pork sausages came out to $9.99. I won't get into the question of value here, particularly with regards to the meat products; raising animals on sufficient land with a natural diet requires more resources than stuffing them full of cut-rate corn feed. The price will inevitably reflect that extra care, and in theory, I believe the extra cost wholly justified. Still, spending this much on food would require a major lifestyle shift. And for others, it wouldn't be possible at all.
  • Without a farm, or a farmers' market, you're out of luck. I'm lucky enough to live and work within walking distance of Union Square Greenmarket, one of the most diverse and reliable farmers' markets in the nation. But if I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to eat the yogurt or sausage that kept me protein-fueled for a few days. If I had been supermarket-dependent, my diet would have been that of a corn-averse vegan.
  • There's more than one kind of corn feeding. It's one thing to ravage huge swaths of land to produce low-grade feed for cows whose stomachs were not designed to handle corn. It's quite another to supplement an animal's already balanced diet with a small amount of locally grown grain.
  • Our food system is cruel to the corn-free. This week left me thankful that I don't have a corn allergy, because corn-laced products are absolutely everywhere—and they don't even have to be labeled as such. Wheat, soy, and peanuts show up on package information, but corn isn't required to.
  • But it doesn't have to be that way. Plenty of off-limits foods did not, in any real sense, need to contain corn. Cows, goats, sheep, fish; none of these animals have to be corn-fed. (In fact, all are tastier when they're not.) Baked goods don't need corn filler. Homemade sauces don't require corn syrup. Whether as a feed or as an additive, we tend to rely on corn products as shortcuts, to bring down costs and maximize efficiency—not for taste or nutrition.

An Epilogue

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Photo by yomi995 on Flickr

It's almost August in the Northeast, and corn is piling up in the markets. After concluding my two-week project, I picked up a bag at Union Square, tossed the corn in for a two-minute boil, and slathered the steaming ears in fresh butter. There couldn't have been a better reward. Fresh and sweet, each kernel stretched taut with juice, it was a much-needed reminder of the way corn could be.

Hard to imagine that this is the basis of so much we eat. Corn derivatives, corn syrup—sure, they're engineered to make food more appealing. But at that moment, I couldn't imagine anything sweeter than the kernels getting caught between my teeth.

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