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Foods of the Americas: Following corn on its journey from the New World to the Old

Editor’s note: This is Part II of Michelle Bakeman’s three-part series about maize, or corn. In Part 1 we trace the genetic and cultural evolution of maize in Mesoamerica. Today we trace the evolution of maize all the way back to the Old World. We learn how maize developed into a staple food ingredient for Natives of North America and follow its travels east to Europe and the continents beyond. 

By Michelle Bakeman

How was maize being consumed in the New World when the first Europeans encountered it? Imagine the Spaniards witnessing the quotidian routines of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán, the people in the marketplaces with baskets and sacks of this rainbow-colored crop, bursting with sweetn

Michelle Bakeman

ess, ground into flour, made into paste as the gods did so long ago. The conquistador, Hernán Cortés, described his first glimpse of Tenochtitlán in a letter, writing the following:

“When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water…we were astounded…These great towns and pyramids and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision.”

The Aztec capital was constructed on swampy land in the center of a great lake in the Valley of Mexico, which is today the site of Mexico City. It was home to roughly triple the amount of inhabitants of Seville, Spain in 1519, with more than 200,000 people. From afar, the “streets” of Tenochtitlán were clearly laid out like a checker board, with a north to south and an east to west pattern, and upon closer inspection, one was to realize that the streets were not streets at all but rather waterways filled with canoes. The Aztecs cultivated crops on manmade islands they called chinampas, and rising high above the city center was the Great Temple upon which so many were sacrificed to the gods, and whose stone steps wore the crimson stains of their blood, something that could be seen from the outskirts of the city. It was this same zone of the capital that was home to the main market that bustled daily with more than 60,000 people buying and selling goods. The land immediately surrounding the city was not capable of sustaining its population, and so it was the burden of outside villagers to pay tribute in the form of food and other goods such as cotton, metals, and feathers to Tenochtitlán to keep the heart of the empire beating.   The capital required, for example, about 7000 tons or roughly 14 million pounds of maize per year from outside farmers on which to subsist, which begs the question, “how were they eating it?”

On 8 November 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortes reached Tenochtitlan – the capital of the Aztec Empire.

Approximately 3500 years ago, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica, perhaps searching for new ways to consume the genetically engineered maize of their ancestors, developed a technique called nixtamalization. They realized that by soaking maize kernels in an alkaline calcium hydroxide solution that is the result of water mixed with either wood ash or lime (both containing calcium oxide), the kernel skins, called “pericarps,” would soften and loosen. After the kernels were drained, the nixtamalized corn took on a special, sweet flavor and became tender, perfect to be easily ground into flour and made into masa, the dough needed to produce the number one mainstay of Mesoamerican cuisine, the tortilla. In addition to paving the way for tortilla production, nixtamalization provided a phenomenal health benefit.

Maize contains a significant amount of vitamin B3, which is niacin. Untreated kernels hold the niacin bound in the form of niacytin and niacinogen, which cannot be processed by the human body. Nixtamalization unbinds the niacin, allowing it to be absorbed as an essential nutrient, whose deficiency can lead to something called pellagra, which is a disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and even death. The Mesoamerican population would have avoided this disease even with a diet heavily dependent upon maize through the consumption of foodstuffs prepared with maize masas. (Those regions of Europe and Africa that eventually came to rely heavily on corn consumption after maize found its way there did not use nixtamalization in processing the maize. As a result, if they did not enhance their diets with other sources of niacin, they contracted pellagra, a problem that still persists to this day).

In preparation for the laborious process of grinding the corn, the kernels would be soaked in a lime solution (not the fruit lime, but the calcium oxide kind) to soften them up. The resulting, softened mix is called nixtamal, and it has been essential to the tortilla making process for thousands of years. Unknown to the ancients, though, was the fact that the alkaline solution that broke down the cell walls of the kernels also released the niacin chemically bound inside those cells. Credit: Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.

In Aztec society, the tortilla reigned supreme, kept the Aztecs healthy, and was used to wrap beans, vegetables, and meats, the ideal vessel with which to consume them. Perfecting the tortilla was seen as a rite of passage for young Aztec women, a skill handed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. The maize would have been first nixtamalized, then ground on a metate (a grinding stone), made into masa , and formed by hand into round, flat tortillas, which were then cooked on a camalli, which was a flat griddle fashioned of clay. Tortillas were especially serviceable as they could be eaten on the spot or later on, stored and taken on long journeys, not spoiling quickly. Perhaps a close second to the tortilla was the tamalli (tamal in Spanish), consisting of nixtamalized maize flour dough spread on a corn husk or a banana leaf and then topped with a second filling. For this, the Aztecs often used beans, chilies, squash, fruit, turkey, fish, or frog; whatever would have been available. After completing the filling process, the leaves were wrapped up and then steamed. Only the fillings were eaten afterward, and the wrappings were saved for the animals. The Maya were skilled tamal makers also, using squash seeds, venison, and iguana in theirs in addition to the aforementioned ingredients.

Pozole is made with hominy, which is processed corn with the germ removed, and meat, traditionally pork.

The Aztecs used maize in many more dishes, making xoars with maize dough shaped into balls and stuffed with chilies, beans, or meat, wrapped in maize leaves, and steamed in a clay pot. There was also atole, which consisted of a hot maize flour beverage made with the addition of chili peppers and fruit. And lastly, they made pozole, a soup of hominy, which is the corn kernel after it goes through the nixtamalization process, and various kinds of meats.

The Inca, it seems, were not quite the creative corn chefs that were the Maya and the Aztecs. They mostly ate maize made into little cakes or simply toasted. They also enjoyed popcorn. But perhaps the most lasting Inca contribution to the maize culinary archives was the invention of their most popular drink, chicha. Chicha is a fermented maize beer that is still consumed to this day and made in several different ways. Chicha de jora is very similar to other beers of the world and does require fermentation. In Peru, many still honor Pachamama, the Earth Mother, by sacrificing just a bit of their chicha de jora, pouring some of it onto the ground before taking their first sip. Also commonly drunk in Peru is chicha morada, made from purple maize, pineapple, and cinnamon, with sugar and lime juice added after boiling, but never fermented. Versions of the popular maize drink can be found throughout the countries that were once part of the Inca Empire as well as those once inhabited by the Maya and the Aztecs, and as far north as the Southwest United States in areas populated by North American tribes. The Iroquois were known to have used maize to produce dumplings, hominy (nixtamalized corn), tamales, and bread. The foundations for many regional corn dishes in the U.S. were laid by Native Americans such as the Iroquois tribes. Think of what the culinary landscape of the U.S. would look like without hush puppies, grits, corn muffins, corn bread, Johnny cakes (cornmeal pancakes), corn dodgers (tiny baked corn cakes), corndogs, succotash (mix of corn and beans), corn pudding, creamed corn, corn chowder, corn on the cob slathered in butter, and the corn syrup that has become the stabilizing base for so many modern-day American candies.

For the natives of North America, maize was not only prized as food but also used to fulfill other needs.   The husks were made into mats for sleeping, into little dolls for toys, baskets, and even shoes. The cobs were burned as fuel and used to fashion darts.

Farmland in today’s United States of America is used to cultivate corn more than any other crop, and the U.S. is the largest global grower and exporter of corn, producing between 2017-2018 almost 371 million metric tons. Its use and consumption have spanned the ages in the New World, as it is as ingrained in the lives of those who are born and raised there today as it was in the lives of the ancients of the American continents. It is and was revered with the kind of unqualified tender-heartedness that few foods experience. U.S. popular culture is teeming with corn love. Corn-based products have become household names. The country’s people associate it with happy childhoods and home lives. Whose breakfast table has not hosted a box of Corn Flakes or Corn Pops? Who lacks memories of a favorite movie while enjoying that warm, salty, buttery goodness of a tub of popcorn? What would Halloween be without the sweetness of candy corn? Who watches the Super Bowl without bowls of corn chips on the coffee table?

It would have been unthinkable for Native American tribes to have left maize out of their gardens. In fact, most tribes have their own version of a legend called “The Three Sisters” that features the Native American “holy trinity” of crops: maize, beans, and squash, all native to the New World, all essential to daily life, always grown together, side by side in the same garden. The beauty in cultivating the trio together is multifaceted.   Aside from the obvious aesthetics, the maize stalks grant the beans something to climb as they grow and deliver shade to the squash on the ground; the beans gift nitrogen to the corn and the squash, which is an essential component of chlorophyll, the necessary compound used by plants to achieve photosynthesis (using sunlight as fuel); and finally, the canopy of shade provided by the wide squash leaves helps to keep the soil beneath it moist, benefitting all three crops. The three sisters were the hallmark of Native American agriculture.

The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups in North America: squash, maize, and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans)

Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere were busy with their corn cultivation, ceremonies, worship, and consumption in 1492 when Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus is the English version of this Italian man’s name) made his way for the first time to the New World. While Colombo’s logbook did not survive this initial trip to the Bahamas, Cuba, and to the island of Hispañola, which today is made up of the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who documented extensively the encounter between the Europeans and the natives of the New World, reported that on the island of Cuba, the Spaniards saw fields of a grain that the “Indians” called maize. The group of people Colombo first met would have been the Taíno people, a group numbering at about six million strong according to Las Casas. The Taíno word mahiz, which the Spaniards wrote as maíz, appropriately meant “source of life,” as the grain was clearly the base of the local diet. Las Casas claimed that “the grain has a very good taste when cooked, either roasted or ground and made into a gruel.” Colombo’s second voyage to the area occurred during the years 1493-1496. This time he brought with him thousands of men and seventeen ships. Twelve of the ships made their way back to Spain in 1494, and upon one of them there was a letter written by a man named Guglielmo Coma in which he stated the following: “There is here, besides, a prolific sort of grain of the size of a lupin, round like a vetch (a pea), from which when broken a very fine flour is made. It is ground like wheat. A bread of exquisite taste is made from it. Many whom are stinted in food chew the grains in their natural state”. It is believed that in addition to the reference to grain, corn itself made its way to Spain on one of these ships, placing it in Europe before the turn of the century.

In the years following the first mentions of the crop in Europe, the types of maize that were seen growing in different European nations were varieties that had originated in many different New World regions, and therefore, one could assume that maize must have been brought to Europe over and over again, first from the Caribbean, next from Mexico, followed by Peru, and later on, from the East coast of North America. Within just one hundred years, it seemed to be everywhere. Dutch, French, and Portuguese traders reported seeing it cultivated, eaten, and used in other ways throughout the African continent. It was documented growing in Senegal, the Congo, Mozambique, and in Kenya, where people were using it as foodstuff, to decorate hats and shields, and to make baskets. Some Africans were even incorporating prayers for rain for the maize into their rituals. The grain was also well-received in Ethiopia and Egypt and there took on a particular importance in daily diets. It was Turkish and Muslim traders from Persia and Arabia that presumably disseminated the new grain to the rest of the known world of the 1600s, and they did so with remarkable speed. Maize cultivation spread across the globe like a great and powerful wind, blowing fiercely toward India and the Far East, reaching Australia by 1788, where it reportedly survived its first drought far better than did the wheat that was planted at the same time. It was due to this that maize was, at the outset, the preferred crop sown in Australia by Europeans.

Generally speaking, however, how did the introduction of maize to Europe and beyond change the cuisines it tried to infiltrate? Was it to become as popular outside of the American continents as it was at home? The countries of Western Europe, steeped in their culinary heritages, did not embrace maize as the edible hero that it was in the New World. It was not that the grain was not considered useful; quite the opposite. Maize was cultivated right away, but the vast majority of the harvest has always been used as animal fodder rather than as a human foodstuff. This is why among Spanish and French traditional star dishes, we find little to no corn at all. Today the little golden kernels may be seen speckling gourmet salads, as corn is perhaps finally beginning to emerge as a quality ingredient. As we saw with regard to the potato, the English shared certain prejudices with their French and Spanish contemporaries about New World crops. It was only well into the potato blight that began in 1845 that the English began importing corn from the United States to feed, not themselves, but rather the starving Irish, whilst demanding that Ireland continue filling English bellies with the much more highly regarded wheat.

Polenta is really a dish, not an ingredient, from northern Italy. It refers to a porridge or mush now made from coarsely ground cornmeal since corn was cultivated in Europe in the 16th century, but was also in the past made with farro, chestnuts, millet, spelt or chickpeas. Polenta is usually made from yellow corn. Credit: TheKitchn.com

What about Italy then? Did the Italians follow suit? Most foodies are familiar with polenta. For those of you who are not, polenta is a porridge dish of Northern Italian origin (eaten as far back as in the time of Roman dominance) that was originally made with grains such as buckwheat and millet. Italians had been making it for centuries before the arrival of maize, but just as the introduction of the potato to Ireland provided a solution to the hunger of the poor, so the introduction of maize to Italy provided the same. Wheat cultivation has always been expensive, and wheat has always been the grain of choice of the elite in Old World civilizations. From a pragmatist’s point of view where the impoverished members of society were concerned, why waste the coveted grains of the wealthy on them if there was an acceptable substitute? As a result, polenta-making among the peasants of Northern Italy rapidly became corn-based by the end of the 17th century. Because the peasants could afford the maize, they ended up relying heavily upon it on a daily basis, much like the Irish relied on the potato before the great potato famine. Little did the Italians know that there was a sleeping monster in their polenta bowls; that monster was pellagra. The Italians were conscious of the Native American process of nixtamalization, as it had been documented. However, believing that the process exclusively served to better the taste of the corn, never thinking that it would unbind the essential nutrient niacin, they skipped the nixtamalization, opting instead to simply dry and grind the kernels, relying on the Old World grain processing techniques that they already knew.   The result was a weakened and sick peasant population. For some time, it was the maize itself that was blamed for the illness, but nevertheless, faced with starvation, the people continued to consume it.

Polenta today has quite a different face than it did centuries ago and is among the ranks of Italy’s culinary marvels. Because the silky smooth, slightly sweet porridge is mild-tasting, it functions as the perfect neutral foundation on which to build a dish that tantalizes the taste buds. Think of the brilliance of a rich, creamy roasted garlic polenta topped with grilled Portobello mushrooms in a glistening beef stock sauce as a companion to a peppercorn encrusted steak cooked to your liking. The porridge can be dressed up with a tangy cheese, cooled and cut into wedges and then fried for a crispy side dish, or served nestled against a colorful array of grilled vegetables to please even the staunchest vegetarian.   Polenta, in short, in modern times enjoys a newfound fame both at home and abroad. Thankfully, here in Ecuador we can buy polenta on the grain aisle of our local grocery stores. Let your imagination run wild as you ponder what to do with it, which favors to meld with it, what companions to place next to it on your plate, what sort of silky sauces to top it. I think I’ll make polenta tonight, maybe with a roasted chicken and vegetables, and a glass of velvety Chilean wine. How could I go wrong?

Sources:
Ancient History Encyclopedia. Inca Food & Agriculture
FeastandPhrase.com. Nixtamalization: Aztecs and Ash
United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library. Milho. makka, and yu mai: early journeys of Zea mays to Asia

Maize: Origin, Domestication, and Its Role in the Development of Culture by Duccio Bonavia. Cambridge University Press, 2013


Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.