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With a new show on the Magnolia Network, culinary anthropologist Casey Corn ’10 helps families recreate lost heirloom recipes.
By Rick Koster
here is seemingly no end to variations on the timeless riddle concerning provenance and whether it belongs to the chicken or the egg.
In that spirit of philosophical exploration, then: which or who came first, Casey Corn ’10 or culinary anthropology?
“Oh, there was food anthropology long before me,” Corn says, laughing. She’s on the phone from the home she shares with her husband in Atlanta, where they relocated from Brooklyn about a year ago. “But it’s something I feel I’ve taken out of academia and into popular food media.”
Indeed, Corn is the host of a popular new show on the Magnolia Network called Recipe Lost and Found. On each episode, she meets a new family, helping them recreate the secrets behind forgotten ancestral recipes—and then uses that focus to explore the clan’s history and culture.
Corn is perfectly qualified for the role. But it’s true she had to follow her own curiosity in a meandering path of discovery before landing on her own food-based TV show, and she credits her experiences at Conn with exposing her to fields of study she’d never considered.
Originally from Santa Monica, California, Corn enrolled at Conn after “my parents told me I had to go to college,” she says. “I wanted out of L.A. because I went to a really big high school. So I went on an extensive tour of small New England liberal arts colleges. When we drove onto [the Conn] campus, I told my mom, ‘This is the place.’ I just knew.”
Interestingly, though Corn enrolled wanting to study theater and become an actor, there was an early indication she might end up with a different focus.
“We went through the curriculum and they have you check all the courses you find interesting—and without realizing it, I’d checked all anthropology classes,” Corn says. “My mom said, ‘What, are you going to be Indiana Jones?’”
Little did Mom know. Indiana Jones? Sure, if he could rock a dashi poached mackerel with soy-infused shitake.
As it happened, Corn was ambivalent about her early theater experiences at Conn and, along the way she enrolled in an anthropology course with John Burton, who at the time was head of the department (he died in 2014). “I was sitting in that class, and it just clicked,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘This. Is. It. I don’t know how I’ll get a job out of this, but this is how I feel about the world.’ And it snowballed from there in ways I never imagined.”
Burton and another anthropology professor, Jeffrey Cole, who counts food anthropology among his specialties, were hugely influential on Corn’s development. Cole supervised her thesis—on olive oil!—and still fondly recalls a video of a TEDx talk that Corn sent him a few years after she graduated.
“I made that video required viewing in my food classes,” Cole says. “I’m not surprised she’s been able to make a name for herself in television. Even when I met Casey, she was already a standout student. She had poise beyond her years and was very refined in the way she was able to present material. She’d hand in drafts that were incredibly polished. I asked her, ‘How do you do this? How do you go about your work?’ And she just said she wanted her work to be the best it could be.”
Corn returned to Los Angeles after graduation. She absorbed a variety of work experiences, including as a barista at Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica and Brentwood. It was her efforts in that capacity that earned her the opportunity to talk about her olive oil thesis for the TEDx Santa Monica food series.
She also impulsively traveled across the United States by bus, which spurred her to visit London, where she attended Le Cordon Bleu and earned a degree in cuisine. As she studied, she worked at the renowned Basement Galley supper club. Culinary school degree in hand, she returned to Los Angeles and was soon hired as executive assistant to Susan Feniger, the hyper-accomplished chef, restaurateur, radio personality, cookbook author and star of the Food Network show Too Hot Tamales.
There was more travel and much eating. One of her favorite culinary adventures is particularly reflective of her adventurous spirit and willingness to rely on herself and her instincts.
“I’d been traveling with friends through India and needed to do something else, so I found this article about how to eat in this one town, George Town, in Malaysia,” Corn says. “It was the best eating week of my life—I’m talking six, seven meals a day,” she says, laughing. “I had a dim sum meal where it was just older Chinese-Malaysian men and I was the only one who spoke English. I ate so much I fell asleep in a bowl of soup. I was out like oxen on the side of a road.”
Back in Southern California, Corn served as a line cook at Knead + Co Pasta Bar in LA’s Grand Central Market and also at LEONA in Venice. In 2017, she began her own culinary company, The Cornivore, and found herself starring in recipe and experiential videos as a “tastemaker” for Tastemade, a network focusing on food and travel.
Then, Recipe Lost and Found happened.
“Let me be clear. I did NOT come up with this idea,” Corn says. “A producer found me on Instagram and, through the magic of social media, reached out. ‘I know this sounds like a scam,’ she told me, ‘but I have an idea for a show.’
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was already working in food, and I’ve always been ready to take a meeting—and I was completely enamored of the idea of helping families explore their histories through recipes.”
The show was pitched to several different companies, but Magnolia—the network created by Chip and Joanna Gaines, the stars of HGTV’s Fixer Upper—landed Recipe Lost and Found.
“They really care about their talent, and it’s exciting to be part of a new, small network,” Corn says. “It’s a great scene of creative people who really want to be part of it.”
Corn says she’s enjoyed meeting and working with the families on the program, and that each episode is a learning experience for her as well. She raves, for example, about learning how to prepare a Caribbean dish called brown stew chicken. “It’s not something I ever would have learned in culinary school, and I’ve been making it at home,” she says. “Every week is new and exciting.”
Reflecting on her journey, Corn says, “All along, I was gaining all these experiences at a time when food, in a context of discovery and history and culture, was exploding. It’s been a long road. There had always been work for food anthropologists, but it was in academia. And I think Anthony Bourdain really was a pioneer in moving this in a new direction. Anthony showed us not just that the world is an amazing place, but also that you should go and see it.
“My generation travels like no other before—and not just to go on a trip. I want to eat and experience culture and history. We’re all connected through food, and through that we’re learning how many more similarities we have than differences.”