|Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback||
Thanks for the miracle of corn
(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- In the first book of the Old Testament, (Genesis 42:1) we read: "Jacob saw there was corn in Egypt." That does not mean the pyramid builders munched corn-on-the-cob to fortify their labors.
The sweet corn we know and love is strictly a New World food. Confusion stems from the fact that when the Bible was translated into English during the reign of King James I, the word "corn" was a generic term meaning the seeds of all cereal grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats) much as "berry" means any small succulent fruit.
On November 4, 1492, when Columbus landed on a Caribbean island, his diary records that the Taino natives grew a grain called mahiz which was "well tasted baked, dried and made into flour." In English, the word became "maize," but early settlers stubbornly continued to call the grain "Indian corn." They also refused to eat it, a fact that more than once nearly destroyed the New World's colonial settlements.
Most of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas had been city dwellers. They were not accustomed to hunting and they suspected that the foreign plants in their new home were poisonous. Their Old World crops failed, and harsh early winters caught them unprepared. Surrounded by a cornucopia of plenty, English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, were reduced to eating rats and shoe leather and would have starved if the local Powhatan Indians had not given them hundreds of bushels of corn.
Similarly, the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, would have perished in its first winter had not the Pilgrims discovered large caches of corn that had been buried by the Cape Cod Pautuxet tribe.
The native peoples of the Americas revered maize. The Taino word, mahiz, means "bread of life" or grain of the gods" and many tribes had legends telling how corn came to be. In most cases, corn was given to humankind by woman -- symbol of Mother Earth, the guardian of all that walks or grows upon the land.
Iroquois tradition holds that during a famine Spirit Woman walked through the fields and corn sprouted in the prints of her moccasins. The Pueblo Indians believe that six sisters came from the stars, each bearing a different color of the sacred corn -- yellow, red, blue, white, speckled and black. The Cherokee tell of Sehu, the Corn Mother, who charged her sons to guard her burial mound for seven nights. Each evening corn grew from it, but on the last night the boys fell asleep and the crop failed. The Cherokee claim that is why corn is so difficult to grow.
The real miracle of corn is that the wild grass came to be domesticated at all. Bound in its neat package of tough husk, it is nearly impossible for corn to reseed itself. Unlike other grains, corn cannot be broadcast on the wind or strewn upon the ground and left to the vagaries of the elements. Even if the cob fell to the earth freed of its husk, the seedlings would choke each other because the kernels are set so closely together. Each corn seed must be deliberately planted in its own little hillock of earth. Then the seedlings must be watered, weeded, nourished, watched over and tenderly cared for just as Corn Mother instructed her lazy sons to do.
Archaeologists theorize that corn was first cultivated in Peru where the Incas believed maize was a gift from their sun god, Inti. The earliest motifs of maize, its stalks, ears and tassels are found in Inca ruins, and dried ears of corn thousands of years old have been discovered in Inca graves. Sculptured corn stalks stood in temple gardens; the husks and silks were fashioned in silver, and the corn kernels were made from solid gold. Confidant that they were Inti's direct descendants, Inca nobility sipped sweet maize drinks from gold cups fashioned like ears of corn.
From terraced gardens high in the Andes, corn cultivation spread northward. Both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations revolved about the propagation of this sacred food. Planting was a critical time, and the right moment was a matter of supreme importance. Aztec planting was accompanied by a ritual sacrifice of a human heart, itself the kernel of life; the sacrificial victim's body was discarded like a withered worthless husk. On the great Mayan calendars, the pictograph for the month of planting maize was a circle quartered by a cross with a small dot in each section -- a seeded corn mound.
Century by century, and mile by mile, cultivation of corn spread until it became the primary food for most Native American tribes. In Mexico and the Southwest, stone-ground cornmeal is still made into tortillas, or mixed with meat and steamed in dry husks as tamales.
When ashes accidentally fell into some cooking pot eons ago, corn kernels swelled, slipped their skins and smoke-flavored hominy resulted.
The favorite dish at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth must surely have been the exploding popcorn given to the Pilgrims by Chief Massasoit.
But maize is a tyrannical plant, each corn seed demanding its own weed-free plot of ground and excessive amounts of water (4,300 gallons for each bushel of harvested grain). Maturing ears require constant protectionfrom all manner of feathered, six-footed and four-footed nibblers. And so nutrient absorbing is it that once soil has grown maize, five to 12 years must pass before the land returns to its original fertility.
It is a mystery how the ancient horticulturists discerned corn's quirky biological requirements. When the European settlers arrived, they found carefully tended cornfields that were quite unlike grain fields at home. There, seed broadcast on the wind grew in scattered patches wherever it fell. Here, they found evenly spaced corn mounds watered by intricate irrigation systems. In each mound, four to six corn kernels were planted plus a few seeds of two other New World foods: beans and squash.
In Iroquois myth, corn, beans and squash are three inseparable sisters. Today, the threesome is known as the ``Indian Triad,'' and when eaten together forms a perfect food. Corn provides protein and niacin while beans and squash contribute the amino acids necessary for digestion.
Were the original inhabitants of the Americas nutritionists as well? No one knows, but corn, beans and squash were always eaten together and always planted together. As the corn plants grew straight and tall, beans climbed and flourished on the stalks and squash plants covered the ground, their vines and leaves inhibiting the growth of pesky weeds.
Growing corn was a sacred task. To ensure that the corn would grow tall and strong, some tribes "fed" the corn spirit with bat guano hauled to the fields from far distant caves while others buried a fish in each mound.
To beseech Corn Mother for a harvest with many golden ears, women danced around the plants in slow circles, shaking their hair and encouraging the hair-like corn silk to flourish. To guarantee that maize would always be plentiful, the best ears were kept for seed.
How could these early agriculturists have known that "feeding the Corn Spirit" would provide vital nutrients that the nitrogen-hungry plants were leaching from the soil? How could they have known the vital correlation between corn silk and kernel -- that each strand of silk must be fertilized by pollen for its embryo kernel to grow fat and full of sweet white milk?
And how could they have known that their cross-pollinization planting method would create the only six varieties of corn in existence -- sweet corn, dent corn, pod corn, flint corn, flour corn and popcorn? The answers are lost in history and only one thing is known for certain: Even biogenetic engineering has not been able to develop another strain of the maverick wild grain, Zea maiz.
When the first Europeans settled the New World, they, too, learned to love the "grain of the gods." One of the first dishes adopted by the colonists was m'i sicquotach, a tasty corn-bean mixture that the English called succotash. Cornmeal cooked into flat cakes was handy to carry on long journeys, thus its name ``journeycake.'' Colonists learned to make hearty meat stews with the Three Sisters, and to boiled or roasted corn on the cob they added their own special touch -- butter, for the people of the Americas had no milk cows or dairy products.
By mid-18th century, European colonists had completely accepted corn as their staple food. Nothing from the plant was wasted. Kernels were eaten raw, dried, cooked, parched, popped or ground into flour. Cobs were fed to the livestock. Stalks were used to build shelters, roofs and fences. Dried silk was steeped in water to make medicinal teas. Husks were wrapped around other foods for cooking purposes, woven into mats, baskets and clothing or tied up as brooms or dolls for the children.
Today, the world-wide annual harvest exceeds 500 million metric tons, and half of that measure is grown in the United States. Corn has been inextricably woven into the daily life of everyone who has ever lived in the Americas, and its cultivation has spread around the globe.
During late summer when the harvest is peaking, we tip our hats to the brilliant Native American agriculturists who nurtured corn, reverenced it and coaxed it into the forms we know and love.
See related sites about FOOD
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.