Carlyle at His Zenith (1848-53)

By David Alec Wilson | Go to book overview

XXIV
INDIAN MEAL OR MAIZE (1849)

THE failure of potatoes had now made maize or Indian meal from America a common food in Europe. But why, Carlyle enquired of Emerson, is there a bitter final taste which makes the throat smart? Emerson consulted his brother-in-law, Dr. Jackson, "our best chemist," and reported ( 23.1.49) that the bitterness was due to the corn being kiln-dried before it was sent. This was done to make it less likely to turn musty on the voyage, but it hindered some of the starch becoming sugar. So all that was needed to get the corn at its best was to get it without kiln-drying. To let Carlyle make sure of that, Emerson sent him a barrel of fresh corn. Lord Ashburton took charge of the grinding, and the flour tasted 'sweeter than wheat or any other grain, with an excellent rich taste, something like that of nuts.' To finish his share of the enterprise, Carlyle then wrote an account of it, which appeared in Fraser's Magazine for May,1 explaining, for the benefit of all, the way to 'get Indian meal such as our American cousins get, that we may eat it with thanks to Heaven, as they do.'

'This grain seems likely henceforth to be the staff of life for overcrowded Europe; capable not only of replacing the deceased potato, but of infinitely surpassing' it. In short a man could support life on it for little more than a penny a day, and there was no danger, 'for unlimited periods yet, of its becoming dearer. . . . In the valley of the Mississippi there could Indian corn enough be grown to support the whole posterity of Adam now alive: let the disconsolate Malthusian fling his "geometrical series" into the corner; assist wisely in the "Free-trade movement"; and dry up his tears.'

In thanking Emerson Carlyle assured him,--"It is really a small contribution towards world-History, this act of yours and ours."

____________________
1
Reprinted in the Scottish Review, 28.2. 1907; and see Literary Recollections, by F. Espinasse, pp. 165-8.

-84-

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