Cornography: Land of the golden phallus

Cornfield near Iowa City
Harvested corn fields near Iowa City. They smell like opportunity! — photo by Kirsten E. Kumpf-Baele

If we are what we eat, we have almost no choice but to be corn. It’s an ingredient in so much of what we consume, knowingly or not, but here in Iowa City, it’s a constant summer reminder of who we are and what we can do with what the oft-generous earth gives us.


Something worth appreciating, oddly enough, is that blanket stereotype associating Iowa with corn. It’s something that this state really rests its livelihood on, and for good reason: Those funny wands that seem to grow next to any highway or street lining the state are big, big business. From genetic food modification to plastic to barbecue staple sides to ethanol gas, corn plays such an integral role in our lives that it’s absolutely staggering.

While the majority of corn grown in this state is field corn—corn used for things like feed or agri-science-—sweet corn is the kind we enjoy chowing down on, and it absolutely explodes from the earth like lava from a volcano during the well-irrigated summer months. Corn is so abundant here that you can often find it in town not only at farmers’ markets and in colossal boxes outside of grocery stores, but at stands in Family Video’s parking lot on Highway 1 and Riverside or at lemonade-like stands heading out of town in any direction., the website associated with the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and Iowa Corn Growers Association, prides Iowa on having “produced the largest corn crop of any state for almost two decades. In an average year, Iowa produces more corn than most countries.”

Corn in Iowa is truly bounty food, absurdly plentiful and insomuch that we base our lives around. Here in Iowa City, corn stands selling bags of ears for a song fit in masterfully with the both America’s hardscrabble Midwest values (those easily visible all across our mostly-rural homeland), DIY field-to-customer best hopes and dreams and our penchant for really overdoing it.

What can’t corn be used for, right? — photo by Kirsten E. Kumpf-Baele


What’s more emblematic of human beings than using a staple food to create something nightmarish we literally become lost in? Corn mazes. If you think about it, corn mazes are a unique social experiment that test the limits of how tangibly far people are willing to veer off track. Crunching through bamboo-like stalks of tall corn, sometimes tall enough to eclipse the horizon, may earn you some scratches, but before you can even get familiar with the hair-like wisps of split corn silk pouring over your face, you’re free. And yet it’s never about that—it’s about paying for and taking in the relaxed totality of loss. The largest one of these is 45 acres across and sits awaiting your doom in Dixon, California.

With nearby mazes in Wapello, Marengo and Atkins, and way, way more across the state, there’s no better way to spend hours (and hours and hours) having no idea where you are and splattering your navigational sense memory with the screams of terrified, awkward-should-I-get-involved unaccompanied children ambling around well-organized twists and turns.


It is not enough to eat and breathe corn in the heartland of America; no, you must drink it also. Sweet corn soda, one the many bizarre sodas from Lester’s Fixins—a company that appears to use the face of an elderly gentleman who resembles Orville Reddenbocker on steroids on its logo—“tastes like buttered popcorn,” says Tom Gilsenan, director of Uptown Bill’s Coffee House and an all around Iowa City niceguy. “It’s ideal for a party,” he continues. “You can all pass it around and everyone can try a little. Really strange stuff.” Despite even the best attempts of the summer heat, the idea of a party where everyone has a good time trying strange sodas is undoubtedly enough to melt even the most air conditioned of hearts.


Your humble author has a day job: I teach college and high school AP English. And I cannot recount the number of essays I’ve read about detasseling, a sort of teenage rite of passage here in Iowa City. The majority of my students who write about this process have done it for HyVee, which seems to take a particular kind of traditional pride in providing teens with the opportunity to learn about the crispy sound of assembly-line monotony, one my students has recounted with a kind of romance and frustration again and again. “I made some of my closest friends standing there taking the damn husks and silk off those ears of corn,” another one of my students, a 19-year-old native Iowan from Williamsburg, told me. “But it was boring. So boring.” Here we observe corn working as a signifier for the prototypical, ancient bronze monument to the American teenage job: veneer of work ethic development and getting one’s hands dirty thinly draped over a tiresome drone of mind-numbing repetition and minimum wage. And that’s a really beautiful thing.

Russell Jaffe is an oft-man doing oft-things.