Two worlds collide.  The Old one brings the New one an array of gifts: Christianity, guns, horses, Small Pox and steel weapons, changing the fate of it’s people forever.  And what history-changing items did the New World give to the Old? Some excellent foods – potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate and corn.

Traveling in Latin America, I often puzzle over which aspects of the contemporary culture are indigenous and which came from the conquerors.  So much here can be traced back to Spain.  But at least one aspect of the culture here in Mexico, seems to be pretty much Mexican – the cuisine.  There are, of course, plenty of outside influences.  But to this day, Mexican food revolves around maíz – corn.  And corn, that humble starch, is actually a fairly miraculous and mysterious food.

Dricker94's photo of corn

Miracle food? Photo by Dricker94

There’s More to an Ear than Meets the Eye

Scientists have puzzled over the evolution of corn for decades.  Wild relatives can easily be identified for other grains such as wheat and rice, but corn appears suddenly in the archeological record and there are no wild plants that are similar.  How did this happen?

Long before Monsanto started telling farmers they couldn’t save seed (isn’t that what farmers do?), corn had already had its evolutionary path altered by humans.  Ten thousand yeas ago, at the dawn of agriculture, early Mexicans used selective breeding to develop corn from a grassy ancestor called teosinte.  The two plants are so different that it took a long time for botonists to figure out that they are related.  But it is the closest relative to modern corn.

The Milpa and the Maza

When I was growing up, my father was a little bit anal about the garden.  Before seeds could be put in the freshly tilled soil, he’d have us smooth it out with a 2 x 4, then use a piece of string stretched between two stakes to make sure we were putting the seeds in a straight line.  Next neat little labels were added. Intermingling of different plants would not be tolerated.  A milpa would have killed him.

A milpa is field in which three crops are grown together – corn, beans and squash (a trifecta that also happened to the base of the Meso-American diet).  Here’s how it works.  You plant corn, a great food staple, but a plant which is not so easy on the soil.  Next to it you put a bean seed.  Beans are nitrogen-binders, good for the soil.  But beans need something to climb on.  How convenient that there is a corn stalk handy.  Then squash, which has big, broad leaves which shade the soil and help prevent water evaporation.  You can still find milpas all over Mexico.  And fields continue producing for centuries without the aid of chemical fertilizers.

Huerta Agroecológica's photo of a milpa

Not my father’s corn field. Photo by Huerta Agroecológica.

This ingenious way of farming was followed by another brilliant maneuver.  The ancient Americans boiled their dried corn with slaked lime.  This process softens the corn, loosens the hulls from the kernels and allows for the absorption of niacin.  Thus, the flour made from this treated corn- called maza, delivers a great deal more protein, vitamins a minerals than corn eaten in its natural state. From this flour they made tortillas, and on tortillas they built a cuisine.  Even in the good ole’ days, corn was a highly processed food.  But processed in a way that made it more, rather than less, healthy.  It was a food a staple fit to build an empire (or two) on.  And they did.

Even the fungus which grows on corn, known as corn smut in the U.S., was and is considered a delicacy.  It looks kind of gross, but I decided to try it.  It was good.  I recommend that anyone traveling in Mexico give cuitlacoche a try.

 Scot Nelson's photo of corn smut

Cuitlacoche aka “corn smut”. Photo by Scot Nelson.

The People of the Corn Take to the Streets

You are what you eat.  The ancient Mayans referred to themselves as the “People of the Corn”.  Their creation myth tells how they were made from corn. It was not only their primary food source, it was the basis of their culture and their spirituality.  For many, it still is.

They are wise enough to recognize that that cultural heritage is threatened by modern agribusiness.  On May 25th activists held a “Festival of Corn” in Mexico City and made their feelings about Monsanto, the multinational company which produces pesticides and genetically modified corn, known.   Monsanto is a big monster to be up against, but these people know that they have everything to lose.

We’re Number One (unfortunately)!

Mexico now has the dubious distinction of having surpassed the United States to lead the world in obesity.  Thirty-two point eight percent of Mexicans are obese as opposed 31.8% of Americans.  (I was glad to see that there is a whole percentage point of difference.  If it were less than that I’d have to wonder if my moving here tipped the balance.) No one would argue that traditional Mexican corn-based foods – tacos, tamales, enchiladas- are low in fat.  But Mexicans have been eating those foods for centuries and obesity only recently became a problem.  What’s going on?

Part of the problem may be due to eating corn in a relatively new format – high fructose corn syrup, mixed with water, caffeine, phosphoric acid…As it happens, Mexico is also at the head of the pack for consumption of Coca-cola.

I’m not going to give up on tamales and enchiladas.  But if I’m to accompany them with a grain-based drink, it’s going to be a michelada.

4 replies
  1. OCDemon
    OCDemon says:

    Man, America isn’t #1 in ANYTHING anymore. Oh well. We had a good run. Ironic reverse-pun intended.

    I’ve always thought it was interesting to see the contrast between European and native influences, and it’s pretty sad that so much of it disappeared. I like to think of it if I’m somewhere like China or India, where they have thousands of years of history and it didn’t go anywhere…even if they also wear Levi’s and play basketball. That’s basically what Latin America would look like, and it’s nice to see the places, like Bolivia or Peru, and others, where that uniqueness is still around.

  2. memographer
    memographer says:

    Thanks for such informative post, Jenny. Enjoyed it. A three crops milpa is my today’s “discovery” :) Thanks! I love boiled corn. I boil corncobs from time to time in lightly salted water :) Mmmmmm, tasty!


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