from maize to corn -- 2/22/18

Today's encore selection -- from The American Plate by Libby H. O'Connell. Corn, an American dietary staple:

"People started farming in the Americas more than thirteen thousand years ago. In Mexico, archaeologists have found evidence of the cultivation of maize -- what most Americans today call corn -- since 7000 BC when ancient people domesticated and hybridized a wild grass called teosinte, the genetic ancestor of this versatile grain. Dispersed by wind, rain, and farmers sharing seeds hand to hand, the maize seeds traveled in all directions.

"Over the centuries, native farmers selectively bred their crop to have larger cobs and bigger kernels, making the corn easier to harvest and process into food. As the cultivation of maize spread northward, different tribes developed various techniques and traditions for turning the hard seeds into nourishment. Maize became so central to tribal culture that its planting, sprouting, and harvest played important roles in religious observances and calendar reckoning.

"More than four thousand years ago, ancestors of the Hopi Indians were among the first indigenous people in the American Southwest to cultivate maize in what are now Arizona and New Mexico. It took about two to three thousand years more for maize farming to spread to the native tribes of New England, although some archaeologists believe that the cultivation of maize and other plants -- including sunflowers and tobacco -- happened independently on the East Coast.

"Maize grew happily in semicleared fields without special plowing, which made it easy to cultivate. In many tribes, women tended the cornfields with their Stone Age tools, planting beans and squash around the low mounds where the maize grew. These three food crops -- maize, beans, and squash -- became known as the Three Sisters. The tendrils of the bean plant climbed up the cornstalk, supporting both the bean and corn plants, while the large flat leaves of the squash plants discouraged weeds. Today, anthropologists call this milpa agriculture, 'milpa' being the ancient Nahuatl (Aztec) term for field.

"Compared to some of the world's other domesticated grains, maize was an enormously productive crop that didn't require intensive labor. Wheat, for example, demanded more time and effort from the European peasant. Corn grew in poor or rich soils and happily shared space with other local crops as well as beans and squash. Once harvested and dried, the cobs or kernels could last all winter in covered pits or mounds. This was not the sweet, juicy yellow corn we buy today. The kernels were hard and variously colored -- like the decorative Indian corn that stores sell now in the fall, only the cobs were smaller. Different kernel colors and cob sizes were identified with different localities.

Centeotl, the Aztec deity of maize

"Maize is a high-calorie carbohydrate and was an excellent food for the native people, who worked hard physically throughout the year. When the hard kernels were soaked overnight in an alkaline solution (such as water mixed with wood ashes), the heart of the seed was exposed and people could more easily absorb the nutritional value. ...

"About 3,500 years ago, native people in Mesoamerica developed a process called nixtamalization that improved the food value of maize. The word derives from an Aztec Nahuatl term for this treatment. They soaked the hardshelled corn in water mixed with wood ashes or lime overnight. The softened hulls floated to the top of the water or were easily slipped off by hand.

"Sweet, green corn, like we enjoy on the cob today, did not receive this treatment. But nixtamalizing the tough, dried kernels made their food value, including niacin, become much more accessible to the human gut. The Algonquln word for the resulting white, soft heart of the corn is rockahominie, from which our word 'hominy' is derived. Once the outer hulls were removed from the maize, women could pound the hominy with a mortar and pestle or grind it on a stone by hand to make cornmeal.

"Later, European settlers would skip this step in corn preparation because their millstones were powerful enough to turn corn into meal without soaking it. Unfortunately, that meant that their systems did not absorb all the nutrients from the maize. Thus, lacking nixtamalization as a culinary tradition, settlers with highly corn-dependent diets sometimes ended up with severe niacin deficiencies that caused diseases like pellagra.

"Pellagra, which causes symptoms ranging from canker sores to memory loss, continued to be a scourge in poor farming areas in the South until the 1950s. American Indian and Mexican groups continued to soak their maize in the alkaline water, however, avoiding these problems."



Libby O'Connell


The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites


Sourcebooks, Inc.


Copyright 2014 by Libby H. O'Connell


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