Corn

Symbol of abundance, but with a dark past

By Carolyn Best

Coconut and Fresh Corn Soup uses ears of fresh corn, a symbol of bounty, but with a dark history.
PHOTO: CAROLYN BEST

The Quiche Maya of the midwestern highlands of Guatemala, seated in their council houses on mats woven of cornhusks, listened to stories of how the earth and heavens were formed, of the creation of human beings and of the history of the Mayan people. In the beginning, the god Huracan and his six divine helpers created the world and all its plants and animals. But none of these could worship them so they wanted to create spiritual beings.

They first attempted to use mud, but the creatures they made had no soul so they washed them away in a great flood. Next they carved figures from wood, but these had no intellect and had to be destroyed too. Then Huracan and the other gods molded four beings out of corn dough, and at last they found success. These were true humans, or divine beings, who could worship them and keep the days of the Mayan calendar. The gods made four women out of corn dough and married them to the men so their children could populate the earth. That is why the Maya speak of “Our Mother, Corn” and many Indigenous cultures in North and Central America describe themselves as “Corn People.”

In the archaeological view, corn originated nine thousand years ago. People who inhabited the present-day land of Oaxaca in Mexico divined an evolutionary path down which the much smaller eared plant, its wild ancestor teosinthe, travelled until it became corn. The knowledge of corn growing spread, until corn grew throughout Central America and over extremely large portions of North and South American. In this vast expanse of lands, corn was eaten at almost every meal. The husks were woven into sleeping mats, baskets, shoes and masks. The cobs were used as fuel. Corn stood for communal wealth and abundance.

Corn is brought to Europe

On his return from the New World in November 1493, Christopher Columbus brought back dried cobs of corn that he had found in Cuba. From their earliest landings, the European colonizers of the Americas recognized the vast significance of corn. The new grain, which the Spanish called maize after its name in the language of the Taino people of the Caribbean, quickly became established as an important staple food in Italy, the Ukraine, Romania and many other parts of Europe. Easy to grow and adaptable to the poorest soils, corn was soon introduced to Africa, India and East Asia by Portuguese and Spanish traders along the maritime trade routes.

With deadly consequences

However, those who brought corn from the New World committed a serious error in ignoring the process by which it was prepared there. The Indigenous peoples of Meso-America soaked the dried kernels of corn in an alkali solution before cooking. In some areas, “milk of lime” from limestone was used; in others, it was burnt mussel shells or the ashes of various plants or trees. Soaking, cooking, then grinding the corn creates “masa,” the dough, which is then formed into tortillas and tamales central to Meso-American cuisine.

Called nixtamalization, from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) words nextli (ashes) and tamalli (unformed corn dough), the process of soaking corn in an alkali solution unlocks its protein and makes it fully nutritious. Otherwise corn cannot release its niacin, or Vitamin B3, the lack of which leads to pellagra, a disease that eats away at the skin like leprosy and is fatal if untreated. Those regions of Europe where corn became the foundation diet of the rural and urban poor were devastated by the disease; in Italy alone, more than 100,000 people suffered from pellagra during the 1880s.

Pellagra epidemic in the Americas

The practice of grinding corn to meal without nixtamalization, brought to the Americas by European settlers, had deadly consequences. By the early 1900s, pellagra had caused more deaths in the United States than any nutrition-related disease in the nation’s history. It reached epidemic proportions amongst the economically vulnerable populations in the southern states. Pellagra swept through orphanages, mental hospitals and prisons – all institutions where inmates were fed on cheap unprocessed cornmeal – and among the rural poor. Even though the link between the disease and corn was long known, the cause remained a mystery. Early researchers blamed unknown toxins in the corn or its infestation by a poisonous insect; they missed a clue in the complete absence of pellagra outbreaks in Meso America, so the the importance of nixtamalization was not examined or understood. It was only later, when pellagra was found to be a nutritional disease, that it was understood that unnixtamalized corn needs to be eaten with a legume or animal product to complement its amino acids.

The vestibules of the US Supreme Court feature Corinthian columns that, instead of traditional acanthus leaves, are carved with tobacco leaves symbolizing the nation’s wealth and cobs of corn symbolizing the nation’s bounty.

Carolyn Best is the former chef/proprietor of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, a long-time Glebe meeting place.

Mexican Tortilla Lasagna 

12 corn tortillas
2 and 2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion chopped
2 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp minced garlic
2 cups diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 cups cooked black beans, or one 15 oz. tin
2 medium zucchini or a chayote (a Mexican squash), peeled and diced
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

Heat 2 tablespoons oil and sauté onion till soft and slightly browned, add garlic. Add 1½ cups diced tomatoes, reserving ½ cup, add beans, chayote or zucchini, and corn. Add salt and pepper and chili powder. Chili powder varies so greatly in strength depending on variety, depending on age. Go slowly and taste, perhaps one tablespoon will be enough or perhaps you will want more. Cook gently, covered, till squash is tender. If sticking to the pot appears a risk, add a bit of water or tomato juice.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush tortillas with the two tablespoons olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Toast in the warming oven for a couple of minutes, watching carefully, turning once. Avoid burning them, but okay if they are crispy, they will soften in the lasagna as it cooks.

Spread the reserved tomatoes in a large casserole dish (or 2 medium). Place a layer of toasted tortillas on top, followed by ½ the bean mixture and ½ the cheese. Repeat the layers of tortillas, bean mixture, and cheese. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

Coconut and Fresh Corn Soup

In Mexico, corn is also eaten as “elotes” (roasted or steamed fresh ears), drunk as the beverage “atole” or consumed as cooked grains in the soup called “pozole.” Here we make use of the “elotes.”

1 large onion
3 tbsp butter
6–8 ears of fresh corn (to yield 4 cups of kernels)
1 tsp curry powder
1 cup full fat coconut milk
7–9 lime leaves
2 tsp lime juice
1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro)

Husk the ears of corn and boil in a quart of water. Reserve the water. Cut the kernels from the ears and set aside.
Return the cobs to the water and simmer a while longer to extract more flavour, with the fresh lime leaves added.
Chop the onion and sauté in butter until beginning to brown. Take off the heat, and stir in the curry powder.
Strain the pot of water in which the cobs are simmering. Add 3 cups of this water to the sautéed onion, kernels of corn, coconut milk, lime juice and salt to taste.
Just prior to serving add chopped cilantro leaves.

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