Corn

If maize corn’ were the only gift the American Indian ever presented to the world, noted environmental historian Alfred Crosby, he would deserve undying gratitude, for it has become one of the most important of all foods for men and their livestock. Corn is the third most important food crop in the history of humankind, following rice and wheat. Corn’s origin has caused many scholarly arguments. Until recently, most botanists believed that corn was developed in the Valley of Mexico by Amerindians, who, 7,000 years ago, began to systematically select the best specimens of the wild grain teosinte, causing teosinte to evolve into corn. Scientific experiments, however, have caused some scholars to dispute this explanation. The discovery in 1954 of fossil corn pollen more than 80,000 years old in Mexico, along with subsequent botanical experiments, proved that teosinte was involved in the miracle that became corn, but did not itself evolve into corn. Its pollen fertilized wild corn, creating a natural hybrid, whose seeds were larger and did not scatter so easily. This spontaneous cross breeding first took place in the Peruvian Andes about 4,000 years ago and spread south, taming all wild corn over the course of the next 2,000 years. Amerindian food gatherers no doubt appreciated the new hybrid corn and selected it for planting over its wild relative, speeding up the process of evolution. Gradually, trade and population movements brought corn to many parts of the Americas where climate permitted its cultivation and the native peoples engaged in agriculture. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492, hundreds of varieties of hybrid corn from five major groups dent, flint, flour, sweet, and pop
were being grown throughout the continent. More versatile and adaptable than either rice or wheat, corn could be grown in the North, in the South, and even in regions with little water the Hopis developed a type with a long taproot that, while spindly-looking, produces extensive crop yields. Most importantly, corn grows into nourishing food in just three months. The first written mention of corn was made on October 16, 1492, when Christopher Columbus noted in his diario that it grew on Fernandina (in the Bahamas), but he called the grain millet. Columbus’s son Ferdinand clarified this, writing that the Tainos had a grain resembling panic grass that they call maize and is most tasty, boiled, roasted, or ground into flour. Spaniards transplanted corn to Spain, where documents mention it being cultivated by 1498. It spread to Italy by 1554, where corn quickly replaced millet and sorghum as the grain of choice for polenta, the thick porridge that was the staple food of Italian peasants. Egyptians soon were cultivating vast fields of corn, and it continued to spread across the Middle East. In fact, in many regions of the world, corn is known as Turkish wheat or Syrian wheat, which indicates how early it was established in those regions. Among the Iroquoian farming peoples, the cornfields were the domain of women. It was the females of the tribe who planted and weeded the crops, kept away the birds (as seen here), and harvested the corn. (Engraving by Seth Eastman, provided by Prints Old and Rare, Pacifica, California) Today, corn is primarily known as animal feed throughout Europe, but it also is a staple food for the poor not only in Spain and Italy but also in Southern France, Portugal, and the Balkans (Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania are among the largest corn producers in the world). Corn also helps to feed the populace in northern and southeast China; China is second only to the United States in quantity of corn production. The hill people of India, and those in the country’s north and northwest, also eat a prodigious quantity of corn, as do all of the peoples of Indonesia and nearby islands. Many Africans outside of Egypt raise corn, too, particularly those from Nigeria east to the middle of the continent. Unfortunately, the Central American technique of nixtamalization, whereby corn is prepared with wood ashes or lime, which enhances the availability of the grain’s protein and vitamin content, was not exported along with the seed crops. Therefore, people outside the Americas who rely on corn as a staple food tend to suffer from pellagra and other vitamin deficiencies. Living first among the Tainos, Spanish colonists ate corn as a boiled or roasted vegetable and as arepa, a thick corn bread. After conquering the Aztecs and Incas, however, they discovered many new ways to eat corn, among which were hundreds of varieties of tortillas, tamales, and dumplings, various types of atolli (nonalcoholic drinks) and chicha (beer), and pinolli, a toasted corn carried by travelers. Like the Central and South American colonists, North American colonists also owe thanks to the Native Americans and their corn for their nourishment
indeed, for their very survival. The U.S. tale of the first Thanksgiving recognizes this. Native Americans of the Woodland culture taught French, Dutch, and English colonists how to plant corn, dropping four kernels and a fish head for fertilizer into each hole poked with a stick into a prepared mound. Unfortunately, the newcomers did not adopt the natives’ companion planting method of growing corn with squash and beans. The beans replenish the nitrogen used by the corn, while the corn stalks provide poles for the beans, and the wide leaves of the low-growing squash keep weeding to a minimum. North American colonists also did not show their thanks for very long. As French food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes: In their eagerness to dispute possession of a land which belonged to neither of them, the French and English agreed on only one point: the Indians were more vulnerable to the destruction of their maize stores than the destruction of their villages. Lynne Guitar See also: Agriculture; Columbian Exchange; Grain. Bibliography Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Col³n, Ferdinand. The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand. Translated by Benjamin Keen. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1959. Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973. Galinat, Walton C. “Maize: Gift from America’s First Peoples.” In Chilies to Chocolate, Food the Americas Gave the World, edited by Nelson Foster and Linda S. Cordell. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992. Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., ed. America in 1492: The World of the Indians Before the Arrival of Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997. Home Geekonomics: Crazy Cob Holders for National Corn On The Cob … Maize – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wheat And Corn Surge After Crop Report – Business Insider

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