August 03, 2006

South Dakota's temple to corn

A recent issue of Smithsonian carried a piece called “What’s Eating America,” adapted from Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Corn, writes Pollan, is king of the American diet. Of the 45,000 items stocked in the average American supermarket, corn figures somewhere in more than a quarter of them. And, it figures in the very structure of the stores themselves.

Writes Pollan: “It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself – the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built – is in no small measure a manifestation of corn. "

Mitchell, South Dakota there’s a building that is nothing but a manifestation of corn. The kids and I were on our cross country journey and were headed east toward Sioux Falls, where I planned to hook a 90-degree left turn from I-90 onto I-29 and drive to Fargo, North Dakota just so I could hear the locals there talk. I was hoping they’d sound like Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. (Enough of them did to have made the jaunt to Fargo worth my while.)

South Dakota's spare, beautiful, wind-whipped monotony can tax the endurance of the long-distance driver, so I pitstopped anywhere that smelled even mildly entertaining. (A real gem: Pioneer Auto in Murdo – for antique and classic car buffs, this funky, labyrinthine museum is worth the price of a plane ticket to Rapid City or Sioux Falls from just about anywhere.)

But Mitchell's
Corn Palace took the cake. From Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

An architectural phenomenon is firmly planted in the middle of downtown Mitchell. The Corn Palace is an American artistic statement brilliantly rendered. In corn. Corn art. Art in corn. Corn-as-art. A building made of corn. Covered, embellished, inside and out, with cobs and kernels. A stationary, architectural Rose Bowl Parade in feed instead of flowers. I bought postcards and a corn-shaped candle from a gift shop cashier who told me this year’s exterior and interior corn murals “weren’t quite done because there hasn’t been much rain, and the grain is weak.” It looked done to us. Like nothing we’d ever seen. Artists compete annually for the honor of crafting a piece of the next year’s Corn Palace. Photographs of Corn Palaces of years gone by lined a lobby wall. The building’s skeletal shape stayed the same, but each annual Palace was a new work of iconic American art. Mitchell changes the way you look at corn.