The Iowa Corn Challenge: Day 4 – Hot Tips or The Challenge of Challenges

Today we visited the Farmers’ Market in Des Moines where we looked for corn, corn-based foodstuffs, and maybe even a little locally-brewed ethanol (that wonderful fuel that, for cars, blurs the line between drinking and driving). But first, we stopped to listen to this fantastic local bluegrass band and cut a rug with a local toddler or two. Then the search for corn began in earnest. After running ahead and scouring the market, Julie confronted the perplexing and terrifying possibility that we had somehow missed our window of opportunity and all the corn at the Des Moines farmers’ market was sold out…whah whah what?!?! (Hot Tip #1: never wait until the last hour of a farmers’ market in Iowa to look for corn – that stuff sells out like hotcakes…made of corn…in Iowa). Luckily, she managed to track down the last of the local corn and we bought 33 ears – of course, Mark will burn through that in a day and a half. Finally, we caught a few interviews and then headed back to our hosts’ place to regroup and run some errands.

Hot Tip #2 – If you’re trying to avoid generating trash…STAY THE HECK OUT OF THE MALL! It’s like they positively throw packaging at you the minute you walk through the door and enter the arctic-chilled halls of that great American consumer shrine that is at once so familiar and yet so utterly bizarre. While waiting for Rachel “CAR”son to get “lubed and rotated”, Julie and I, in search of sustenance and perhaps a little free wi-fi, passed up the Applebee’s across the street and headed into the mall next door. What we found was one Big Ben Booby Trap. Some like to call it…(cue scary music)…THE FOOD COURT!

Now you would think that having to eat only food containing corn or corn-based derivatives would be a snap, even sinfully fun, in a shopping mall food court…and you’d be right. But doing that while being a vegetarian and not generating any trash is a special challenge indeed. Also, bear in mind that the challenge for me is not only to eat exclusively foods or “entrees” that have corn or some corn-derivative in them, but as many different kinds of corn-containing dishes as possible without repeating so as to highlight the ubiquity of corn in our American diet.

Before me lay the food court’s four contenders, and boy was I hungry. The pizza place was off the menu – I talked to them for 15 minutes, no corn or corn derivatives in anything whatsoever according to the tattooed rocker working the counter who actually went into their storeroom several times to read ingredient lists on bags. I ruled out the burger joint (nothing edible on the menu) and the Chinese food joint (sure MSG is corn-based, but that’s one corn-derivative I’m trying to keep out of the diet). That left the taco joint. Ahhh, the taco joint. They have corn tacos!

I consulted the fresh-faced teen (we’ll call her “Brenda”) behind the first register about whether or not their only vegetarian item (the cheese quesadilla) contained any corn. Brenda looked confused for a moment, told me it was her third day, and referred me to the manager at the other register. No problemo. I slid over and explained to the manager the “crazy corn-food challenge I’m conducting.” Meanwhile the line in front of Brenda was growing rapidly. “Oh, and, I know, hilarious…I’m a vegetarian too. Sorry.” The line behind Brenda was getting obscenely long now and spilling over into mine. Where had all these people suddenly come from – was there a secret Labor Day sale on mediocre Mexican food that I didn’t know about? Perhaps Neiman Marcus or The Limited had coughed them up, or perhaps some sort of fast-food surface tension was pulling them toward the counter like a trans-fat magnet. I didn’t know. All I knew was that I could feel their hungry breath on my neck and I could sense their “fast-food means FAST-food” eyes burning holes in the back of my head and, worst of all, I could see the beads of angst-drenched sweat running down poor Brenda’s face and into her already overburdened teenage pores as she struggled to pick up the slack in front of her.

Meanwhile, the manager was only too happy to humor me by running back to the storeroom. Oh, God, just hurry – I thought – these people are hungry for their savage gruel. At last the manager emerged confirming that, yes, indeed the flour tortillas used in their cheese quesadilla contained corn starch, among a litany of other unmentionables. Eureka! Vegetarian, corn-containing, artery-clogging heaven! Now all I had to do was wait for my order to arrive. Five minutes later it did…in a big paper box on a tray with a piece of protective paper underneath it! NOOOOOOOO!!!!! In my rush to keep the “fast” in fast-food, I had inadvertently forgotten to tell the manager about the most important challenge of all – the “making no trash” challenge! Aaaarrggg! I tried to dodge what trash I could, but it was too late…she was on to the next hungry customer and I was in fast-food packaging hell.

I tried consoling myself with the fact that, during the wait, I had used Julie’s refillable coffee MUG to tank up on the refreshing corn-syrup delivery mechanism not-coincidentally known as MUG Root Beer (my first soda in months), thereby keeping the meal’s beverage experience well within the bounds of the challenges…but it was no use. This was an unqualified disaster. As I moped back to our table, Julie, never one to hide her disappointment, asked me to explain and I did so the best I could. But the misery was compounded when I opened the gargantuan packaging to reveal a small, limp, soggy quesadilla hiding in the corner of the box. Seriously, this was the most feeble quesadilla in the history of “mexican” food – made all the feebler by the enormous build up of the box itself. It took all of 30 seconds to wolf that sucker down at which point I resolved to get at least a second use out of the packaging by going back up and ordering a taco salad (without meat and in an edible corn-tortilla “bowl” of course) that I would insist they put in the quesadilla “coffin”.

Back at the counter I dutifully informed the manager of the “garbage challenge” and, true to form, she jumped on board. She headed off the disposable plastic plate at the pass and replaced it with the quesadilla box. She even asked me which kind of sauce I wanted on my salad. “Oooo, salsa and ranch” I said, confident that the ranch dressing was plenty full of corn-derived God-knows-what. Things were looking up. I returned to Julie to wait, fully confident that redemption was mere moments away.

But as I returned to the counter my heart sank. On another piece of protective paper on another tray sat my salad in a box…..with a plastic fork sticking out of it! NOOOOOOO!!!! And there, not ON the salad, as promised, but NEXT TO the salad in the box were TWO containers of dressing (ranch and salsa). NOOOOO!!! I grabbed the box and ran back to Julie, leaving behind the tray with the protective paper in it (hoping to God that the manager would just use the paper for the next customer). This was spiraling out of control.

As I dug my disposable fork into my lettuce and cheese taco salad (I kid you not, those were the only ingredients save the tortilla shell – it may very well have out-lamed the quesadilla) I couldn’t help but wonder if this weren’t somehow the result of too many layers of challenges. Had my brain started to short circuit from having to cartwheel through hoops any time I ordered a meal? Was the law of diminishing returns finally dampening our efforts to creatively push ourselves out of our comfort zones? As mentioned before, there’s the original garbage challenge, the self-imposed vegetarian challenge, a no-sugar challenge adopted out of solidarity with Julie (I know, I know – corn-syrup in the root beer), and the newly-minted Iowa corn challenge…to say nothing of this month’s “no incandescent lights” challenge which, if we haven’t already, we will certainly be blogging about in the coming days. At this point, I was just glad the room was already well lit and there weren’t any light switches in sight – who knew what catastrophe I would wreak.

Then Julie reminded me that we were in a mall. Yes, that was it! Malls!!! Vortexes of packaging and plastic and sales and gimmicks and ploys to burden us with all kinds of junk we don’t need. But we were not only in a mall…we were in a fast-food joint in a mall. Mall + Fast-Food Joint = Some kind of sick multiplier that results in an exponential amount of crap being hurled at you in ways that are nigh impossible to foresee or avoid…particularly when you’ve got corn on the brain. So as I sat there, drowning my sorrows in iceberg lettuce and root beer, one thought kept haunting me like a retroactive mantra…

…should have gone to the Applebee’s.

And now, a limerick:

There once was some food in a mall
That was packaged, but that isn’t all
It was soggy and bland
And it tasted like sand
So they braised it with Pepto-Bismol

until next time,

2 thoughts on “The Iowa Corn Challenge: Day 4 – Hot Tips or The Challenge of Challenges

  1. Wow. And I thought that eating nothing but plain corn was tricky. Let it be known to our YERT peeps that while Ben was at the mall filling up on garbage and corn derivatives, I was back at our hosts’ place, cooking and de-cobbing over 25 ears of corn. If the challenge didn’t end tomorrow, I think I’d have to drive out of Iowa just to eat something besides corn. My body isn’t built for this!!

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