Two corn cobs were walking along, and the first cob noticed that they were being followed by another cob. The first cob whispered to the second, “Don’t look now, but I think we are being followed by a stalker.” This was the type of corny joke that made the rounds at the corn-themed suppers that became popular in the late 1880s.1
Church suppers were commonplace occurrences during the nineteenth century, both as social gatherings and a way for women's groups to raise money. Around 1886, church groups across the country began to use corn as a theme for their suppers. The short-lived fad seemingly came out of nowhere—it was not confined to the Corn Belt in the Midwest nor related to the harvest season.
Three menus below provide an idea of the corn dishes that were prevalent at the time.2 In addition to dishes actually made with corn, the word “corn” was used wherever possible such as in corned beef, which was served at all of these suppers. The Ladies of the Congregational Church of Keokuk, Iowa called their dish “corn beef,” while those in West Hartford, Connecticut embellished it as “corn fed corned beef.”
Desserts with unappealing names like corn starch pudding, corn starch cake, and corn starch pie probably tasted better than they sounded. Indian pudding, made from cornmeal, milk, molasses, and spices, was a common dish throughout the century. Candy corn would have made an easy addition to these menus, but the new confectionery made in Philadelphia was not widely distributed in the 1880s. Corn coffee and “koffee” were most likely plain coffee.
The corn fad did not last long. By the early 1890s, church suppers were being promoted as “Old Tyme Suppers” with the bill of fare written in Old English, reminiscent of the menus that were in vogue during the Centennial celebrations in 1876.
1. Seed catalogs contained jokes and anecdotes among the product listings in the late nineteenth century. The genre came to be known among farmers as corn catalog jokes or corn jokes. The term “corny” was reportedly first used by jazz musicians and jazz writers in the late 1920s.
2. The menu from the Congressional Church of Keokuk, Iowa is a fragment, having separated at the fold with only the first half of the menu surviving.
3. Estelle Woods Wilcox, The New Practical Housekeeping: A Compilation of New, Choice and Carefully Tested Recipes (1890) provides the traditional method for preparing hulled corn. In the new process, corn was kiln-dried to separate the hull from the grain and then loosened and removed by machinery.