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Corn : The American Grain


We raise a lot of corn in this country--half the world's crop. Even after exporting 40% of that, we still eat an awful lot of cornflakes, corn bread, corn on the cob, canned corn, popcorn, cornmeal mush and chocolate pudding (thickened with cornstarch), to say nothing of corn oil and corn syrup. When you consider that most of our corn crop is fed to animals, turning into meat, milk and eggs, it's obvious that we are truly a corn-fed nation.

Where else do people raise corn? Mexico and Central America, obviously, because that's where corn originated. The Italians and Romanians have their polenta and mamaliga. But where else?

Just about everywhere, it turns out, from north of Moscow to the middle of Argentina. After wheat, corn is the most widely planted crop in the world.

Corn is not only highly productive but in many ways more trouble-free than other grains. You don't find your corn harvest full of worthless weed seeds if you haven't bothered to weed the field. Ripe corn can sit on the plant for weeks awaiting your harvesting pleasure without scattering to the wind. (Sweet corn, the variety grown for corn on the cob, has to be harvested at just the right time, but it's more like a vegetable than a grain.) And corn can tolerate a lot of soils and climates.

The second-largest corn producer in the world, right after the United States, is China, and a lot of corn is grown in India, Thailand and Indonesia. Though you don't always hear them boasting about it, many other countries, such as Russia, Hungary and Iran, raise corn. And corn has become the major grain of Africa.

The trouble is that in many places, corn gets no respect. Most Europeans think of it as animal fodder. As far as they know, the only corn suitable for human consumption is popcorn and canned baby ears for salad. It may be that grain is so basic to the human diet that many people feel uneasy about eating a grain different from those their ancestors did.

The extreme case is Egypt, where corn is the main food crop and where the peasants live on a corn tortilla flavored with fenugreek. They call it betau , the name Egyptians have applied to bread since the days of the pharaohs. But not a single restaurant in Cairo serves betau , as if to say, "No corn here, we're all decent wheat-eaters."

At the time of Columbus, corn was grown in the New World from a tiny strip of what is now southern Canada down through the eastern half of the United States (but not the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast), through Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean (where Columbus heard it being called mahis , which gave us the word maize ), and nearly all the way through South America; today Brazil is the world's third-largest corn producer. Even the Incas, who had domesticated quinoa and the potato, lived mostly on corn and based their calendar on the seasons of the corn-raising year.

Throughout the Americas, nearly everybody who farmed at all lived on corn, and cultures tended to revolve around it. North American Indian mythologies are full of stories about benefactors of the human race known as Corn Maidens. The Aztecs, a grimmer people, expressed the dominating, even tyrannical importance of corn in their life by the way a newborn child's umbilical cord was buried. If the child was a boy, the umbilicus would be buried together with a shield and weapons pointing toward the direction from which the Aztecs expected the next enemy army to attack. If it was a girl, the cord would be buried under the metate , the stone slab where she was destined to spend her life grinding corn.

It was in Mexico, beginning about 5000 BC, that people started cultivating the wild grasses that are corn's ancestors. The earliest corn was not very impressive. Its cobs, only an inch or two long, bore only a few dozen kernels, and each kernel was wrapped in a bothersome little husk. Fortunately, one of the most primitive varieties of corn was popcorn, which didn't require any pots or pans to cook, just a hot hearthstone. Plant breeders have hardly had to change popcorn at all over the millennia, but most modern corn is huskless kernels on long cobs, either sweet, for eating on the cob, or starchy, for making cornmeal.

The Aztecs ate sweet corn ( elotl ) and popcorn ( izquitl ), which they sweetened with honey or maguey syrup and made into popcorn balls; they also scattered popcorn around when worshiping the rain god Opochtli to suggest hail. But to the Aztecs, corn basically meant dried corn kernels. Their word for corn ( tlaolli ) literally means "that which has been scraped off the cob."

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