Presented at the 2016 Southern Foodways Symposium
University of Mississipi
October 14, 2016
Mexico, where corn began, understands itself not only as a nation of corn-eaters, but as corn itself. One of that country’s best known idioms is Sin mais, no hay pais: Without corn, there is no country.
But as I look at what’s eaten in both Mexico and the U.S., I have to be honest: We eat an awful lot of Jiffy and Maseca.
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I’m not from the South; my family’s ties here are so far back they’ve disappeared. I’m a working class girl that ended up working as an investigative reporter. And so I speak to you today not from a position of experience here, but as an outsider taking a keen and curious look.
As an outsider, new to this whole cornbread thing, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t know about the borders and languages and cultures used to divide this hemisphere, I could be excused for thinking that Mexico and the American South are kin.
Why is this so? Corn.
The south, after all, has long understood itself, as Marc has explained so well, to be peopled by corn-eaters.
And as Stephen hinted at/told us, Mexico, where corn began, understands itself not only as a nation of corn-eaters, but as corn itself. One of that country’s best known idioms is Sin mais, no hay pais: Without corn, there is no country.
But as I look at what’s eaten in both Mexico and the U.S., I have to be honest: We eat an awful lot of Jiffy and Maseca.
Jiffy, a corn muffin mix, was born in rural Michigan in 1950. Maseca, a corn tortillA mix, was born in northern Mexico in 1949. Both come from midcentury industrial beginnings, but, notably, neither of them comes from the American south. And yet, they’ve both put down roots here.
And, truly they have put down roots all across the country: Jiffy says that it not only captures 91 percent of all corn muffin mix sales in the U.S., its corn muffin box is the second-most-popular dry grocery item in the country, right behind Chicken Ramen—and just ahead of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Snickers bars.
Even in the south, Jiffy dominates. Food Lion, a regional supermarket chain based in North Carolina, says Jiffy leads its corn muffin sales. Martha White, which has one percent of the national market, comes in second place.
Maseca, as a company, is harder to get a bead on. The corporate branch didn’t return calls; private industry data is pretty hard to come by. But a 2003 report ranked Maseca’s milling arm, Azteca, as one of America’s most productive. It was the largest corn milling firm under one banner that year, with one of every six bushels of corn ground in the U.S. going into Azteca products.
Now, to be fair, less than two percent of the corn grown in the U.S. goes to cereal and meal. Most of the corn we grow becomes animal feed or ethanol. But if yore going to understand food as culture, you have to look at cornbread and tortillAS. This gets tricky. It’s almost impossible to avoid the nostalgia and myth imbued in both those foods, of course. In the South, we’ve got magnolia trees, women in petticoats, and placid domestic workers. In Mexico, its stories about indigenous women happily grinding corn by hand to feed their children. But eventually, you run across a less romantic truth: That Jiffy and Maseca are among America’s most popular corn products.
And that us with a vexing question: WHY?
When cornbread and tortillAS made from scratch are so delicious, and so beloved, why the hell would you come up with a mix?
To answer that we’ve got to start from very basic place, namely the kitchen before mixes showed up. Because to understand why we got mixes, we need to be on the same page about what they replaced.
As Marc so eloquently explained, cornmeal, and so cornbread, had been cheap and accessible throughout the South since colonial times. It is also so easy to make that it’s barely a step away from being a mix. One can get by with little more than meal, buttermilk, egg and baking soda, and a bowl, and then some hot fat, a skillet and an oven.
Tortillas, on the other hand, may be simple foods but they are not, for modern lives, very practical. As Stephen suggested, making tortillAS is incredibly labor intensive; nixtamalization takes hours. To grind the cooked corn into dough, a woman knelt in front of a stone board called a metate and ground the corn into a smooth dough using a stone rolling pin. Finally, women spent hours cooking discs of masa into tortillAS on a hot comal, or griddle. Anthropologists estimate that pre-industrial Mexican women spent up to five or six hours making tortillAS from whole corn to flat bread, every single day.
That makes the appeal of a tortillA mix more obvious, at least in terms of labor.
But how did we get from there tovelvety-fine industrial mixes?
To get to the bottom of Jiffy’s corn muffin mix, we have to start with a white lady in a northern kitchen.
Her name was Mabel Holmes, and she was a busy mother of two boys, married to the owner of a grain mill in Chelsea, Michigan, a farm community west of Detroit.
One day, her son brought a friend over for lunch. It had been unplanned, so the friend had his bag lunch with him, and Mabel took a peek inside. This being the north, she found in the bag not cornbread but a biscuit “like a white hockey puck.” The boy was being raised by his father, and the sad biscuit, and all the work that must have gone into it—no matter how poor the outcome—moved Mabel.
It was the late 1920s, just before the Depression. Mabel had already been thinking about how to make a baking mix, based on wheat flour. But she decided she didn’t just want to help herself and other housewives. Mabel wanted to make a mix so foolproof that even a man could use it.
At least, that’s the story that Jiffy shares. But they can’t really explain why they added corn muffins, which came twenty years later, in 1950. So I have a few ideas about that.
First is that the economy was certainly going strong. Detroit in 1950, remember, was the boom town of all boom towns, and Chelsea was just sixty miles away. It seems reasonable to think there was a heady vibe in the air. Savvy business owners were asking: “What else can we sell?”
That went, of course, for food. Food manufacturers that had supplied the armed forced during the war were now trying to repurpose field ration recipes into food Americans would eat at home. Supermarkets were doing their part, creating a new sales path for anyone who could create a shelf-stable product with a snazzy label—and really opening interstate commerce for food in the process. And Chelsea, Michigan, was not only close to Detroit, but also close to Michigan’s corn belt, making it a natural fit for a cornbread enterprise.
When the corn muffins came in 1950, the recipe followed the same format it does today. Take mix, add egg and milk, mix and bake. It’s barely any different from making cornbread from scratch. But Jiffy’s does include sugar.
//Pause for audience//
I imagine there are a number of theories about how the north became the land of sweet yellow cornbread, but I am inclined to believe one shared with me by Adrian Miller, the author of Soul Food. White corn, which was typically grown in the south at that time, is sweeter than yellow — the most common type in the north. So as southerners went north, both black and white, it’s possible they may have added a little bit of sugar to try and approximate the taste of home.
Whatever its origins, sugar has been with Jiffy since the beginning. The company’s CEO, Howdy Holmes, told me that twenty-five people at Jiffy did informal taste tests at the time, and they all liked it. So the decision was to try and see how goes. And today, he told me, “it’s clear that the South likes sweet.”
//Pause for audience reaction//
But there wasn’t any inkling, says Holmes, that Jiffy’s corn muffins would grow into an iconic part of American food culture. As the company expanded into the south, so did its corn muffins, landing in southern supermarkets by the late 1950s. But the company doesn’t advertise. It doesn’t offer coupons. Instead, it relies on low prices—made possible, says Holmes, because they waste no money on marketing—and persuading supermarkets to stock their product. And their customers, Holmes told me proudly, are the American working class, looking to save time and money.
So how, in the last 65 years, did Jiffy become American cornbread’s de facto spokesperson, spinning itself as a champion of the working class? And what happened to cornbread when it did?
These are important questions, as is the story that got us to them. And I’d like to keep both in mind while I turn to our other corn icon, Maseca.
Roberto González Barrera, the founder of Maseca, was no Mabel Holmes.
He was born in northern Mexican in 1930, the same year that Mabel launched her biscuit mix. His father ran a grocery warehouse, and when González left school at age 11, he began working there. González was always selling something: dairy products first, then fruits and vegetables. The story goes that González persuaded his father to go in on a corn mill in 1948. He had learned that cotton workers consumed up to 15 tons of corn per month collectively, and thought it sounded like a good market. He began grinding corn, and the next year, introduced a finely ground, nixtamalized corn meal: masa harina, or dried dough. It was 1949.
Making a tortillA mix, though, was far more revolutionary than a corn muffin mix. Mexican inventors had been trying to figure out how to take the labor out of tortillA production since the early 19th century. Their first success came in 1859, when the first mill to grind corn was introduced, but political upheaval kept its inventor from ever marketing it. In 1908, the tortillA press was invented, 1919 saw the introduction of mechanized tortillA baking machines, and the next year, commercial nixtamal mills appeared across rural Mexico. Women could drop off corn, have it cooked with lime, and then ground into dough with a machine. And once the heavy labor of grinding was mechanized, tortillERIAS began to boom, too.
What’s more, in the 1930s, under president Lazaro Cárdenas, the State Food Agency began to intervene in agricultural markets to keep prices low. The state would buy corn from farmers at high prices and sell it to mills or tortillERIAS at a discount. And it set a ceiling on the price for tortillAS, too, keeping them affordable for families.
So, as we approach midcentury, Mexican families had what, looking back from today, seems like a fairly good trade off between excellent tortillAS and the intense labor required to produce them. So by the time Maseca was introduced in 1949, many Mexican households had already been freed from the metate and the comal. So it’s hard to imagine them demanding a mix.
As with Jiffy, the origin story offered by Gruma, the parent company that invented Maseca, is short on detail. As with Jiffy, the story is that the founder was an entrepreneurial success, and that Maseca saved struggling Mexicans time and money. And as with Jiffy, I think there’s something bigger going on.
This was the 1940s. The whole developed world had become infatuated with large scale industrialization and the ways it could reduce labor, lower prices and, most of all, generate profits. This was particularly true for food companies, who had realized that grain could be more than just flour.
And aspiring masa harineros had a leg up on many of the grain experimenters; they knew what to do with the grain—make masa. The problem was that masa defied industrialization.
Fresh masa ferments and turn sour within a day. Fresh tortillAS don’t keep. And if you couldn’t ship products to far away places, if you couldn’t pile them high enough to sell it cheap, you couldn’t ever really go industrial. To make money off of masa and tortillAS, you needed a way to stop all that rotting. What you needed was a shelf-stable, add-water-only-mix.
Now, food scientists had actually been tinkering with this idea for years. An American company in San Antonio, Texas filed a patent in 1909 for Tamalina, the first commercial corn tortillA mix, but it stayed small. It wasn’t until González’s Maseca introduced its brand of the stuff forty years later that the product began to find a large market.
For its first two decades, Maseca struggled. Tortillas made from dried dough carried a different flavor than the ones made from fresh masa. And the texture was drier and less pliable, more likely to disintegrate, than traditional tortillAS.
So if Mexican consumers weren’t clamoring for instant masa, and if the tortillAS it made tasted bad and fell apart when it showed up, the question — again — is HOW? How did Maseca conquer the masa market?
And to answer that, it helps to turn back to Jiffy.
It’s tempting to assume Jiffy became popular because of broad trends like industrialization, women working, and single dads baking hockey puck biscuits. And maybe I’d buy that explanation in the north, where cornbread wasn’t so central that everyone would know it was easy to make. But why would people in the south, particularly those who preferred their cornbread savory, flock to a mix—let alone a sweet one from the north?
There’s no confirmed history about this, so allow me to venture a guess.
The first half of the twentieth century was a time of near-constant upheaval for the south, including—even especially— in the kitchen.
In affluent white southern homes, the face of the kitchen was that of a black worker, just as it had been under slavery. As legal and social rules began to change, white, middle-class southerners began to discuss “the servant question:” finding skilled workers willing to continue doing what was formerly slaves’ work at the wages whites were willing to pay. One African-American man, Samuel Harris, offered a solution: The Black Mammy Memorial Institute, a school to teach African-American women and men how to properly perform domestic and agricultural tasks.
That can sound odd today, but in the early 1900s, one of the reigning memes, to use a modern term, was as follows: Reconstruction had failed, and it had done so because of southern blacks’ incompetence. Later on, historians debunked this myth, beginning with WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction in America, and continuing through today, as historians continue to revisit and rethink that era. You can see those memes at play in the Black Mammy Institute’s charter, which explains that when slaves landed in Virginia, they came “without the fundamentals of industrial skill and moral intelligence.”
Regardless of white opinions as to the skill displayed by black workers, having cheap access to them remained integral to the white south’s identity for decades. When FDR got the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, he’d needed the support of the Southern Democrats to do it. He got them on board by agreeing to exclude domestic and agricultural workers from the law’s protections. Those were two categories of workers that, in the south, were very often black.
And, by the time we get to 1957 or 1958, when Jiffys’ corn muffin mix arrived in the south, there was another threat to the supply of cheap black labor: the civil rights movement.
So it’s plausible, I think, that the era in which Jiffy began offered some unique market opportunities, especially in the South.
Affordable, quick mixes would have been appealing to white southern consumers facing the threat of either paying more for black labor, or losing it altogether. If you thought your cook wasn’t bright, Jiffy offered you a “foolproof” way to get good corn bread anyway. And if you were worried your cook might leave, you’d have something to fall back on if they did.
Black southerners would have their own path to Jiffy, too. For African-Americans working in white families’ kitchens, streamlining a day’s workload would likely have been welcome—and would have familiarized them with the product and its flavor. And, at home, there’s no reason to think black families would be any less interested in convenience than whites.
As Jiffy gained popularity across the south, grain mills took note. Weisenberger Mills in Midway, Kentucky introduced a corn bread mix in 1962. Atkinson Mills in Selma, North Carolina introduced a mix “in the early sixties,” according to owner Ray Wheeler. He also told me that’s when most millers he knew had started making mix.
But Jiffy, which focused all its marketing efforts on getting into the distribution systems of supermarket chains, is the mix that spread across the country. Today, it’s sold in all 50 states. Its biggest single market is Texas. But the eleven states typically considered to be the American South, representing 15 percent off the country’s population, make up one-third of Jiffy’s market.
That vast reach helps explain why a sweet, northern cornbread has so shaped our country’s idea of what an iconically southern food should be. Jiffy is now so ingrained in American foodways that recipes for tamale pie, a southwestern staple, typically call for a box of it. So do recipes for vegetable bake at soul food restaurants. And one blogger’s attempts to re-create Boston Market’s cornbread direct cooks to combine a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix with a box of Jiffy yellow cake mix.
Jiffy, in part because of its sweetness, is admittedly more identified with soul food in specific than southern food in general. But even in soul food restaurants, its use is often accompanied by a very modern ambivalence about the use of a cheap mix.
Adrian Miller explained to me that, in soul food restaurants, “a lot of people make and serve Jiffy as their cornbread. They’ll laugh about it. They’ll say, ‘Well, this is Jiffy,’ It’s maybe a slight embarrassment, but everyone is in on the joke.”
-6- Maseca: how
You could almost say that Jiffy earned its place by stumbling into all that success: It was the right mix in the right place at the right time.
But Maseca is a different story. There’s nothing stumbling about it.
Sales for Maseca grew slowly for about the first half of the company’s life. The first two decades alone were spent tweaking the mix. This was a hard row to hoe. Even today, when Maseca is a clear industry leader, there is a persistent complaint that tortillAS made from the mix taste “like dirt.” And back in the 20th century, even for rural families that had to travel to get masa or tortillAS, Maseca was a last resort. It was emergency food for when you ran out of the real stuff.
It continued like this for nearly forty years. By 1988, about one-fifth of the tortillAS in Mexico were made from Maseca. And then, González hit upon a solution: He was friends with the president.
González had long been friendly with President Carlos Salinas, who was from the same state as González. Salinas governed Mexico from 1988 to 1994. And while Salinas was in office, he changed the rules of the corn market, in ways that benefited Maseca enormously.
Traditionally, the Mexican government had functioned as a middle-man between farmers and tortillERIAS. But under Salinas, the government intervened even more. It limited the amount of corn that would be given to tortillA makers. If tortillEROS needed more masa, the government’s had a solution: Buy masa harina. And the only producers of that in the country were Maseca and the government. Maseca’s production more than doubled between 1988 and 1996.
A decade later, Maseca was booming in the. As a supplier for the tortillERIAS of its parent company, Gruma, Maseca is the basis for the Guerrero brand sold in the U.S..
But it also supplies independent tortillERIAS. In an arrangement that echoes franchising, company representatives will sell torillerias supplies of nixtamal flour, but offer other help, too. In the mid-2000s, for example, the Chiapas town of San Cristobal de las Casas passed laws requiring tortillERIAS to get a license, update ventilation, paint their walls white, and produce certificates that verified health inspections.
When that happened, Maseca sent representatives to producers using its product. The reps helped arrange for new equipment and painters. But independent tortillERIAS that couldn’t afford the changes on their own had to close.
And as time passed, something happened to people’s expectations about tortillAS. Even though the flavor of dried nixtamal flour was not authentic, it did become familiar. So did the texture. And for businesses selling tortillAS to customers used to that flavor and texture, the longevity conferred by Maseca, which offers preservatives, is worth it. People may not prefer Maseca, but they’ll eat it — and that’s all the tortillERO needs.
I suspect you can see this across Mexico, but you don’t have to travel that far. You can just go to Tortilleria and Taqueria Ramirez in Lexington, Kentucky, one of Southern Foodways’ oral history subjects. When Patricia Ramirez and her husbandd opened it in 1999, they were intent on re-creating quality tortillAS from scratch, buying their corn from a local mill — often Weisenberger.
But they quickly discovered that they preferred the tortillA they got from mixing fresh masa with an equal amount of Maseca masa. Part of the reason they preferred it was that it lasted longer. That, in turn, reduced the cost of production and meant they could ship tortillAS to other taquerias. And now their tortillAS, part Kentucky corn, part Maseca, are becoming the authentic tortillAS of Lexington.
So what can I tell you now about corn, and how its turned into bread, in the South?
I think I start with the basics: We’re human. We’re not very consistent. We celebrate cornbread that is homemade and savory, but serve stuff that’s almost always sweet and industrial. Fresh masa tortillAS are the best, but we’ve built a world where making them ourselves isn’t practical.
And I’m struck by our tortured relationship to convenience, too, how some of us laugh with embarrassment at mixes even as we serve Jiffy. I’m struck by how we’re so ambivalent about it that we will use almost any ruse—not jut the harried nature of modern life, but racism—to justify our desire for it.
But I did notice something else. Jiffy and Maseca may be industry leaders, but there’s not much of either one in our home pantries.
That was confusing for me before I realized something: That , for Jiffy and Maseca, their real market—and especially their future market—for mixes isn’t in grocery stores.
For Maseca, that’s because so much of it turns into tortillAS before it reaches our homes. That’s true in big industrial plants, like Gruma’s, and it’s increasingly true in smaller tortillERIAS—whether at small-town Mexican bakeries or Tortilleria Ramirez in Lexington.
But it’s also because mixes are now the lingua franca not at home, but in hotels and restaurants, schools and hospitals and even prisons—what industry folk call food service and institutional food provision. In 2013, Jiffy broke ground on a $35 million expansion to its facilities in Michigan, solely for the purpose of increasing its institutional food division. Under the name Chelsea Milling Company, it is now the sole baking mix provider for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
And this stuff really matters when we’re talking about our national palate, and whose tastes are considered authentically American or not. Because many of us at some point depend on institutional food—especially in childhood, with things like the school lunch, which feeds more than 30 million kids as year. And it’s worth noting that it is the poorest among us who depend on institutions for food the most: Low-income children are fed mixes in public schools and after school programs. Mixes stay shelf stable in food pantries, and allow soup kitchens to feed many people for little money. They are part of what keeps eating out at any but the finest of restaurants affordable for working families.
I don’t say this to valorize mixes. There are ways to develop better food, that can feed many people, that’s affordable. But that is something our society has yet to do
So where that leaves me, I think, is appreciating the way that Jiffy and Maseca offer a dialectic of taste and PALATE. We value the original and authentic, decry the introduction of something new, but, eventually that new thing becomes old, and the cycle begins again. I’m as nostalgic as anyone for the old, authentic past. But the reality is that I, like all of you, live, and eat, in the present.