While my main interest in farming starts with "sweet" and ends with "corn," I was pleased to see some good news in the February issue of "Illinois Country Living." According to the Department of Agriculture, for the first time in 10 years Illinois is the top soybean-producing state.|
Of course, my firsthand knowledge about this vital and valuable crop can be summed up in two words: soy sauce.
My naval service in the U.S. Seventh Fleet took me throughout Asia. Menus and dining customs varied from Japan to Korea to Hong Kong. Once, while I sat with a shipmate in a Kowloon restaurant, a waiter placed a large bowl of steaming clear liquid in the center of the table, bowed and walked away. We didn't know whether to drink it, wash our fingers in it or worship it.
Each Asian country has its own distinctive soy sauce, which may be brewed, fermented or blended. But they're all made from soybeans, along with a few other ingredients you'd rather not know about.
Sailors of the Seventh Fleet know that, in a pinch, you can give any food an exotic, Asian flair simply by adding soy sauce. It's a shame more eating establishments don't know this. The next time you're at Schleckmeyer's Family Restaurant, examine the condiments at your table. You'll find salt, pepper, a bottle of ketchup and a few of those little packets of mayonnaise that burst open and spray chemically treated egg whites on your shirt. All they'd have to do is put a bottle of soy sauce on the table, and presto: Mu Shu Pork Tenderloins, Macaroni and Cheese Teriyaki, General Tso's Chicken Salad Sandwich.
Certainly, soybeans find other uses in the kitchen. As the spouse of a vegetarian, I am accustomed to soy burgers, which taste amazingly like a Big Mac from which all the flavor, enjoyment and fun have been removed. They go well with soy milk, which tastes fine if you close your eyes and pretend you're drinking motor oil.
Food experts know that you can get people to eat the most boring food by giving it a flashy name. You couldn't give away cold potato soup during a Texas heat wave, but call it "vichyssoise" (rhymes with "fishy gauze") and people in French restaurants beg for it.
Similarly, if you offered people fried soybeans, they'd spit them out on the sidewalk. But sold in plastic bags under the name "soy nuts," they're a popular snack food -- in states that don't grow them. You buy them in the gift shop at Moline International Airport and take them to your friends in California, who thank you for this regional delicacy that no Midwesterner has ever seen outside of the airport.
Soybeans have become an essential component of much of the American diet, from baby food to beer. Just about anything you eat can be improved with the addition of soy.
Except for corn. Only butter and salt may be applied to an ear of sweet corn. All other additives, including soy sauce, are prohibited. I learned this during my first summer in Mercer County, when my mother-in-law put me on cultural probation for sprinkling black pepper on my sweet corn. She got over it when she finally realized I was from New York, not outer space.
Illinois corn may get us the attention, but soybeans have won us the race. It's a welcome gold medal finish for the state that otherwise leads the nation only in pumpkins per acre and ex-governors per prison.
Frank Mullen III of Aledo is a retired Navy band leader.
Milan, IL Details
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