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Mesoamerica is a region straddling the southern part of North America and the northern part of Central America. Long obscured by modern day political boundaries it roughly encompasses the southern half of Mexico and the northwestern section of Central America. It was a cradle of Pre-Columbian (before Columbus) civilization and was home to the renowned Maya and Aztec Indians, amongst others. Sadly, as with the North American continent, the cultural richness of these peoples, not to mention their way of life, was all but destroyed by the European imperialists, in this particularly tragic case, the Spanish. But all the European might could not vanquish some of the timeless gifts these people left to mankind; one of the most amazing being maize, otherwise known as corn in the United States.
The term maize is a derivative of an early American Indian word mahiz. “Corn” originally was an English term used to denote small particles, particular grains. Corned beef received it’s moniker from the small grains (corns) of salt used to preserve it. What we now call corn the early American colonists called Indian corn which was eventually lexicalized to corn. Today, “Indian Corn” refers to the ornamental corn of Halloween and Thanksgiving fame.
But the term “corn” is not the only aspect of this munificent vegetable to be morphed over the ages. The plant itself is a transmutation. Although the exact seminal plant species is uncertain, what you and I refer to as “corn” in the modern day supermarket aisle, is not what first sprouted in the New World. The progenitor of today’s corn began somewhere in the Andes. The Andean Indians introduced it to Central America where it eventually made its way to Mexico. There are an array of theories outlining the specific ontogenesis but basically, sometime between 10,000 and 5,500 B.C. the first corn plants became hybridized and domesticated. Sometime between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C. maize was flourishing in Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence confirms at least 3,600 B.C. but it is inescapable that the process was in motion before that.
Strangely, despite thousands of years of cultivation in the lower Americas, corn didn’t find its way to the modern day United States until around A.D. By A.D. 600, a number of North American Indians were extensively growing it. Corn’s journey to the Old World began with Christopher Columbus who ferried it back to Spain. By 1500 it was under cultivation in Spain and by the 17th century it was a major crop for a number of European countries. The Portuguese introduced it to East Africa and Asia and from there it was just a matter of time until it arrived in India and China through established trade routes. It was flourishing in China in the 18th century and reached Korea and Japan soon after. Corn is now one of the most widely grown vegetables on Earth, especially in the Americas. The United States and China lead world production.
Interestingly, the early Spanish invaders of Mesoamerica were aversive to corn. Some of the Indian tribes practiced human sacrifice and grisly rituals which involved corn. The conquistadors thus correlated corn with internecine paganism and considered its consumption unchristian. Corn consumption was also associated with pellagra, a deficiency disease of niacin in conjunction with the amino acid tryptophan. Corn is barren of niacin. Tryptohan can be converted to niacin in the body thus attenuating the depletion of niacin.
A diet dominated by corn with little other vegetables or sources of tryptophan can result in pellagra. Pellagra causes dermatological, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms and ultimately death. Eventually of course, the Europeans transcended their initial prejudices against corn.
What is truly amazing about corn is its versatility and seemingly innumerable uses. Not even considering the culinary uses, (which we’ll address in the next edition of Food For Thought), the list is impressive. The Indians wove the husks into clothing, sleeping mats, baskets, and children’s toys. Most of the corn grown in the United States and Canada is used as animal fodder. There are also many industrial uses of corn including ethanol, cosmetics, ink, glue, laundry starch, shoe polish, medicines, fabrics, corncob pipes, and ornaments.
There are many different types of corn. The most notable include Sweet Corn. This is the traditional favorite, eaten off the cob with butter and salt, and found in supermarkets and roadside stands everywhere. Sweet corn is so named because of its high sugar content. It is seldom used for purposes other than direct human consumption. Dent Corn, also known as Field Corn is the corn of choice for livestock feed and industrial products. Flint Corn, also known as the aforementioned ornamental Indian Corn sports a range of colors and is primarily grown in Central and South America. A sub variety of Flint Corn is used to make popcorn. Its soft starchy center facilitates the “pop” into the fluffy, movie-snacking favorite.
Join us next week for the second half of our tour of the world of corn where we’ll discuss selecting and cooking corn.