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10 Ways We Use Corn

The most historically American crop is also the most versatile. Corn (Zea mays) is essentially grass that has been cultivated and bred to the size it is today. Originally cultivated in Mexico 7,000 years ago, corn is now America's biggest crop and a staple of the global food supply. Corn is used in many ways other than feasting on at the dinner table or popping for movie snacks, some you might not even realize.

(Image by Flickr user Sasakei)

1. Cornmeal

Cornmeal is made by grinding whole corn. The coarsest meal is called grits, which is used to make corn flakes. A somewhat finer grade is sold in stores to make cornbread, deep-fry batter, and hushpuppies. Even more finely ground meal is called corn cones, and is used for baking and for dusting pizza dough. The finest grade of ground corn is corn flour, used for pancakes, donuts, breading, and baby food. Another type of cornmeal is called masa flour, which is made by treating corn with lime (alkalai). This releases the corn's niacin into a form the body can use. The resulting whole corn is called hominy, and ground treated corn is dried and powdered to make masa flour, which is then used to make tortillas and tamales.

When you get past corn as a whole food in itself, you get into the wet-mill process, which breaks down corn into its components, and here is where you get so many other corn products.

(Image source: University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture)

2. Penicillin

Corn steep liquor is a byproduct of the process of separating the various parts of corn (see the byproduct in this flowchart). It is the water used to soak the various components, and it is reused in several steps. Corn steep liquor contains acids, yeast, gluten, and plenty of nitrogen, and is partially fermented by the time it leaves the mill. It was discarded as waste until the 1940s, when scientists determined that corn steep liquor is the perfect medium in which to grow large quantities of penicillin.

3. Starch

Corn Starch is made from the endosperm of the corn, the part of the seed that exists to nourish the potential new plant. After the hull and germ are removed, the endosperm is ground up and the gluten is separated from the starch, leaving nothing but carbohydrate. Corn starch is used as a thickening agent for liquid food and an alternative to talc in body powder. It is mixed with sugar to make confectioners sugar and was once used to make clothing keep a nicely-pressed look. Corn starch is also the main ingredient in biodegradable plastic.

4. Sugar

Corn syrup is made from corn starch. Starch is a carbohydrate, a molecular chain of sugars. Enzymes are added to the starch to break the chains into sugars, mainly glucose. Further processing can change the sugars into high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is used to sweeten a variety of products, most notably soft drinks. Corn syrup is much cheaper and sweeter than cane sugar. A number of studies have linked the use of HFCS to the rise in obesity. Whether this correlation (which does not prove causation) is due to any organic differences between HFCS and cane sugar or to the quantity consumed is still under debate. The Corn Refiner's Association has asked the FDA for permission to change the term used for high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar".

5. Whiskey

(Image by Flickr user Bluegrass Annie)

People have made liquor from their crops for thousands of years, and in the western hemisphere that meant whiskey distilled from corn. During the settlement of the Appalachian Mountains by European immigrants, farmers found it much easier to transport their corn crop to distant markets when they distilled it first (and just as profitable, if not more so). Taxes imposed during the Civil War and later liquor prohibition laws split the corn whiskey industry into the legal distilling of Bourbon and the illegal distilling of moonshine, so called because it was produced at night to evade notice.

6. Ethanol

(Image by Flickr user Jeffrey Beall)

Distilled alcohol from grain is called ethanol. The word in modern usage usually refers to ethanol fuel or biofuel made by distilling corn. Regular gasoline-powered cars can run on gas blended with up to 10% ethanol. Corn is a renewable resource, so biofuels are seen as a replacement for fossil fuels. However, the growing use of corn for biofuel raises concerns about the diminishing availability of corn for food. Also, the production of biofuels uses as much -or more- energy than it produces.

7. Cornsilk

Tea brewed from cornsilk is used as a remedy for urinary tract infections, as it has diuretic properties. The tea has been marketed to help everything from bedwetting to diabetes to cancer, but the medical community says there is insufficient evidence for such claims. Cornsilk is not harmful to most people, but there are some warnings for those with some health conditions or who are taking certain medications.

8. Corn Cobs

Corn cobs might seem like the throwaway part of corn, but have their uses -and more uses are discovered or developed all the time. Ground cobs are used for livestock feed. Traditional farm uses include animal bedding, toilet paper substitute, landfill, fuel, and to make corn cob jelly. Modern industrial products made from corn cobs include absorbents for oil and hazardous waste, insecticides, fertilizer, and grit for tumbling and blasting. Cobs, as well as corn stalks, are starting to be used to produce ethanol. And you can still make a pipe out of a corn cob.

9. Oil

Oil is produced by squeezing the germ of the corn. It is used as a food ingredient and for frying food in (most appropriately for popping popcorn). Margarine is often made from corn oil, although other oils are used as well. Corn oil is also used in many cosmetics, soaps, medicines, and other products.

10. Glue

Corn germ is a waste product of the separation of corn components. It is what's left of the plant germ after the oil has been pressed out, and is used for livestock feed. However, components of corn germ can be used to make industrial glue stronger. This reduces the amount of resin required in the glue formula, which should make the adhesive less expensive to produce.

(Image by Flickr user Terry McCombs)

Meanwhile, we can use corn in all its harvest glory to decorate our homes and businesses for autumn.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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