Tracking The Mystery Of Maize and Evolution of Corn

Tracking The Mystery Of Maize and Evolution of Corn

The Mystery Of Maize

The long history of the humble corn tortilla dates back almost 10,000 years, stemming from a little known wild grass called teosinte, a short, thin ear with half a dozen small kernels that are wrapped in a dense, stone-like encasing. Teosintes are more akin to rice than the corn on the cob we all love to eat at our backyard BBQs. So how did tensonites evolve into modern maize and become the most prevalent crop in our modern food system? 

Global production of corn now surpasses wheat and rice, with 46 million metric tons grown every year, however, only a small percentage is destined for our dinner plates. Most ends up as ethanol, animal feed, and products like cornstarch and corn syrup.

Sweet corn is usually grown for human consumption, cornmeal, masa, or pressed into oil. Walking through the aisles of your local grocery store, reading labels reveals that over thirty percent of our food products contain some form of corn. It’s one of the most widely used commodities in the world, and we continue to enjoy more corn in our diets as chefs come up with new, creative ways to transform it onto our plates. 

Corn has been a central, divisive crop at the epicenter of the monocropping controversy, and I think it’s important that we question the practices of mono-cropping, modern farming techniques, GMOs, and the threat of crop extinction that poses substantial risks to our health and the environment. But first, I want to first explore where corn came from, and how it crossed cultural boundaries to become such an essential part of our diets.

Many cultures utilize maize in different ways, from Mexico’s corn tortillas to American grits, and Italian polenta. I was interested in looking at why it’s become a modern-day super crop, how it traveled the world, and its history across different cultures.

Sapiens

After recently finishing a fascinating book called “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, it piqued my interest to explore the genesis of specific ingredients, how they were cultivated, and what different cultures use them for. The book is a human origin story that follows our evolution from hunter-gatherers to modern capitalist society, and analyzes the creation of money, the spread of religious beliefs. It’s a great read if you are interested. 

Sapiens really got me thinking – how did early man domesticate corn? Until fairly recently, this was still a mystery, because botanists struggled to make a connection from corn to any other modern living plant.

Early Corn Cultivation In Mesoamerica

In the early 20th century, scientists thought they had found an ancestral connection to maize – the link seemed to be an ancient wild grass of southern Mexico. After further study, it was determined that the teosintes of the Balsas River valley were the likely source of genetic domestication.

How did these early agriculturalists have the insight and patience to stick with breeding this difficult grass, while simultaneously shifting settlements, and grappling with severe weather and unpredictable seasons?

Impressively, over many generations, these ancient farmers bred favorable traits into a high-yield viable food source for their communities, eventually ending up with the genus we share on our dinner tables today. 

(read our post on the Agricultural Revolution and the impact on our food ecosystem)

Maize Seeds

Mayan Civilization and Corn

As corn developed into a viable crop for cultivation and source of nutrition, it began to spread north and south through the Americas. Early Mayan civilization strongly identified with maize – countless representations throughout their scriptures and myths identify it as a source of life.

One documented creation story of the Kʼicheʼ people states that maize was the source of man and all life, after two unsuccessful attempts using mud and wood. The Mayan corn god Hun Hunahpu is represented in ancient carvings and stories throughout surviving records that were not purged during the Spanish conquest.

The Maya utilized corn and all of its bi-products much like we do today. Baskets and mats were woven from the dried out husk, discarded cobs were burned for fuel, and kernels were eaten fresh or dried and stored for sustained communities through a drought.

Mayan Cuisine

From what we know of Mayan cuisine, corn played a pivotal role in much of their diet. By piecing together agricultural evidence and documentation of the Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, it’s clear that traditional foods were passed along for centuries.

Atole being one of these traditional recipes in Mesoamerica, a hominy based drink, sometimes sweetened with agave, cinnamon, and cacao. Its consistency ranges from a thick porridge to a thin drink. From my research, almost every culture around the world has its own version of this corn-based beverage, from the Ugali in Africa, to the Mămăligă în România. 

In Mexico, Atole plays an important part in the “Day of The Dead ” celebrations, where families celebrate their loved ones who’ve passed on. Atole is enjoyed hot, and considered a comfort drink alternative to the tequila that’s also passed around. During the Día de Muertos celebrations, altars are filled with the deceased’s favorite food and drink, including atole.

Huitlacoche and 'Corn Smut'

Also known as ‘corn smut’, huitlacoche is considered a delicacy in Mexico, and is highly sought after by chefs in the country. ‘Corn smut’ is a result of a pathogenic fungus that infects corn crops, forming a swelling growth on the cob of the plant.

The spores quickly spread to other nearby corn plants, either through wind or rain, and it can quickly infect a large crop and render the corn useless. Unfortunately, smut-infected crops are often destroyed, but some farmers do utilize it for fodder, feeding cattle and sheep the bi-product. 

The consumption of huitlacoche dates back to the Aztec civilization, where they likely couldn’t afford to lose a whole crop. Over time they developed techniques to utilize the fungus throughout their cuisine. For culinary purposes, the smut needs to be harvested while immature, typically 2-3 weeks after the ear of corn has been infected, as this would result in the best product. Fully matured smut is dried out, and can’t be used for anything other than feed. When cooked it has a deep earthy and umami flavor, often described as the ‘Mexican truffle’.

In the 1990s, some high profile chefs started to use huitlacoche in their restaurants, and demand for it in the United States increased. The USDA allowed farmers in Pennsylvania and Florida to intentionally infect corn with the fungus to fill the demand in the market. Previously, the USDA spent millions of dollars on scientific research and resources to try and eradicate the fungus from infecting crops.

Unfortunately huitlacoche never truly caught on in the United States, but some chefs continue to push for the delicacy to become more available.        

The Native Americans and Indian Corn

In North America, Native Americans adopted maize whole-heartedly, clearing lands and forests to plant this newly domesticated crop. They grew three varieties of corn including “flour corn” (large white kernels), “six-week corn” (similar to popcorn), and “hominy corn” (multicolored kernels).

Early Native Americans of Cahokia developed an agricultural system, often planting maize, squash, and beans in the same fields. Together these crops made a fully nutritional diet, benefiting each other, and the soil in which they were grown. Squash acted as cover, preventing weeds and retaining moisture in the soil, corn provided a natural lattice for beans to grow, and the legumes replenished nitrogen to the soil. This allowed the city of the Cahokia to blossom to nearly 15,000 people and was the largest city north of Mexico around a thousand years ago. 

Other Native Americans developed many techniques for utilizing this now dominant crop – kernels were dried and pounded with a mortar and pestle to make cornmeal, flour, and thickeners for soups. They often made bread with cornmeal, and wood ash that was named “Corn Pone”, celebrated by settlers as they were accustomed to bread made with wheat.

Another discovery made by Native cultures was boiling dried maize kernels in water and wood ash. The corn would swell up, releasing the hull from its kernel, creating hominy. Today, hominy is the basis of masa, grits, and all corn flake cereals. If you haven’t tried hominy, it’s really tasty – I like to put in chili for a nice texture and as a bonus, it’s also a great source of calcium. 

The European Connection to Corn

Native Indians introduced early European explorers to maize, also famously bringing it to the pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. The Europeans referred to it as “Indian corn” which at the time was a generic term for all cereal grain, including wheat, rye, and oats. As this new crop became an essential part of their farmlands, it was later shortened to just ‘corn’. Upon returning home to Europe, they brought maize seeds across the Atlantic and introduced it to the Old World. This was part of what is referred to as the great Columbian Exchange, in which new organisms, animals, and ideas were transferred across the world more freely. 

Pellegra

As corn proliferated throughout the Old World, problems started to arise with people showing signs of malnutrition, and a disease called pellagra. Whenever corn was introduced as a staple food to a new culture this mysterious disease started to occur. This puzzled Europeans, because the indigenous Americans had no problems with maize as an integral part of their diet.

Pellagra was eventually found to be caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet, resulting in skin inflammation, lesions, dementia, and in serious cases death. Early Mesoamericans, however, had discovered thousands of years earlier that by soaking the corn in an alkaline solution made of Lyme, washing and hulling the corn removed the aflatoxins, the underlying issue associated with pellagra. This process makes the niacin easier to absorb, and as an added benefit, it was easier to grind and had better flavor and aroma.

During the 19th century, the United States experienced an epidemic of pellagra of massive proportions. Southern farmers’ diets relied heavily on corn because it was cheap and readily available. By 1940, more than 3 million people had been affected by pellagra, and over 100,000 deaths had occurred. Conrad Elvehjem, a biochemistry professor, finally made the connection in 1937 that pellagra was a result of niacin deficiency.     

Americas Corn Belt

As maize made its way north from southern Mexico a few thousand years ago, it was adopted by Native Americans and European settlers across the continent. By 1804, immigrant settlers had spread its growth across the country – corn was easy to grow in variable climates and soil conditions.

Over hundreds of years, techniques like hybrid cropping and cross-breeding led to changes in corn that produced better yields, and resulted in an explosion of corn production in the US.

The term “corn belt” was coined in reference to the Midwest, which has dominated production since the 1850s. With US production of over 13 billion bushels, it was said: “the Corn Belt has developed into the most productive agricultural civilization the world has ever seen”.

A stroll through your local grocery store reveals that at any given time there are over 4,000 products that contain corn or corn by-products, making it one of the most prevalent crops in our modern era. America’s fascination with corn dates back hundreds of years, and the ways we use corn and all of its products were passed along through generations.

Maize Timeline

The Humble Hoecake

What is a hoecake you ask? The humble hoecake has origins that are inherently American, yet most people have never heard of it. Similar to pancakes in shape, they originally consisted of cornmeal, water, and salt. Typically a thin, round, unleavened dough, it is fried in fat with golden crispy edges and could pass as an arepa or corn tortilla to the naked eye.

It was one of the first renditions of the beloved cornbread that was a staple in early Southern cuisine. Born in the fields of the slave plantations, the name was said to be the practice of cooking these pancake-shaped breads on-field hoes, but this likely untrue, as this seems impossible to conceive.

The more likely scenario is in reference to the term “hoe” being a griddle or cooktop dating back to the 1600s in England. These dense, thin pancakes are crispy, yet creamy in the center, and often used as a utensil for shoveling in whatever’s on your plate.

Corn Whiskey Barrels

Corn Whiskey and Old Bourbon County

The fermentation or distillation of corn into alcohol (like bourbon) is uniquely American. As America is a story of immigrants, so too is bourbon. Distillation of whiskey was most likely brought to Kentucky by the Scottish, Irish, and other early settlers in the late 1700s.

As Pioneers pushed west following the American Revolution, Bourbon County was established, named after a French Royal Dynasty referred to as the Bourbon Kings. As the settlers began to farm in Kentucky, they planted corn, wheat, and other grains. The county was eventually carved up in different sections, “Old Bourbon” (located on the Ohio river) being one of them, from which whiskey and other goods were shipped out of.

‘Old Bourbon’ began to be stenciled on barrels used for aging whiskey. This bourbon was unique to the county because it was the first whiskey produced with corn. Over time, ‘bourbon’ became the name for all whiskeys produced with over 51% corn and aged in a white oak barrel. 

As techniques of making corn whiskey developed, a process called ‘sour mash’ was discovered, and put into production. Sour mash is the process of introducing previously used spent mash (corn and mixed grain) from the last distillation to aid fermentation of a new batch of bourbon. The acid present in the sour mash helps control bacteria growth that could potentially ruin the whiskey. Sour mash helps balance the PH levels for the yeast to work properly, and produces a much more consistent product for bourbon operations.

After fermentation and distillation, bourbon is aged in a new charred white oak barrel for a minimum of 2 years, where it gets its beautiful amber color and distinct vanilla notes. Born on the backs of immigrant pioneers, the bourbon story is uniquely American, utilizing a corn crop that had been domesticated thousands of years earlier.

Corn Tortilla Taco

Corn Tortilla

How the corn tortilla was first conceived is still a mystery, but its recipe has been virtually unchanged for many millennia. The process starts with soaking the dried maize in a wood ash or lye solution, cooking until soft, then removing the skin and draining the kernels. While the kernels are still moist they are placed on a stone metate (similar to a mortar and pestle), then ground down into masa using a “mano” (round cylindrical stone). The masa is shaped and cooked on a flat terra cotta pan over an open flame. Today we have the convenience of modern machines, but I can always tell the difference of handmade tortillas.

GMO Corn and The Furious Debate

One of the most controversial debates in our recent food discussions is a contentious argument over the potential health and environmental impact of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). While many questions over their use are still unanswered, some scientists see an optimistic future in bioengineering our fruits, vegetables, and even animals. From cancer-fighting sweet potatoes and tomatoes, to vaccine-delivering fruits and broccoli packed with vitamins, the possibilities seem endless, but is this something that’s attainable and safe?

Many questions arise in this debate – are GMOs dangerous for human consumption? How do they affect our planet? Can bio-engineered food help us feed the planet, and what are the consequences?  

Genetically modified foods are nothing new. We have been altering the genetic makeup of plants for millennia, selecting the best seeds for the next harvest.

We have been breeding and crossbreeding plants to manipulate their flavor, size, and durability for hundreds of years. This is how maize was developed from a wild grass in southern Mexico into the global super crop that it is today. These traditional techniques have produced higher yields of rice, grains, and created hundreds of new varieties of fruits and vegetables in our food ecosystem. 

Mono-cropping and Seed Diversity

The practice of mono-cropping has been around for over 150 years, and is widely considered unsustainable and a cause of environmental degradation. The two main issues with mono-cropping are the depletion of soil, and extreme vulnerability to disease, with potential crop eradication at stake. Over 150 million acres of farmland (50% of all farmland in the United States) are planted with corn and soybeans – these two crops make up a large portion of our daily caloric intake, also a huge portion of feed for livestock and poultry.

The potential of disease, blight, and large crop failure could send shockwaves throughout our food ecosystem, and systematic failure could cripple the market.

As of today, of the 50% US farmlands planted with corn and soybeans, about 90% of that is planted with genetically modified seeds. There are currently only twelve varieties of corn in the USDA’s Center For Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado.

Comparatively, at the turn of the 20th century, there were 307 varieties of corn. Seed diversity allows farmers to control their food ecosystem, protects biodiversity, and creates resilient crops that can withstand climate change. Growing a diverse set of crops also allows farmers to harvest year-round, supports a healthier diet, and promotes distinct cultural foods. 

Modern Bioengeneering

The more modern technique of gene engineering is at the core of today’s feverish debate. The process involves transferring a single or few selected genes, sometimes from a completely different species, into the plant. One example of this extreme gene engineering is splicing a certain moth gene in apples/pears to protect them from a bacterial disease called ‘fire blight’. It can destroy entire orchards in a single growing season, and devastating farmers’ livelihoods. 

The most common practice of bioengineering currently in our food system is called ‘transgenic’. There are over a dozen different crops currently on the market including corn, soybeans, cotton, and squash that use this transgenic process. ‘Transgenic’ introduces foreign genes to a new genome sequence, and is mostly used to remedy problems farmers have been dealing with for centuries: weeds, insects, and disease. Bioengineered crops can be herbicide-resistant, or produce their own insecticide to ward off pesky insects that ravage crops.

Scientists are currently working on transgenic animals, examples including salmon that grows at double their natural rate, and cows and sheep that produce milk containing insulin or other vital nutrients more beneficial to human health. 

Final Thoughts

So why are so many opposed to bioengineering, when there are so many potential benefits? There are seemingly endless possibilities to engineering food, but for many, the question is: where do we draw the line? What, potentially, will the consequences of these modifications be over time?

Personally, I feel it’s arrogant to think we can genetically modify nature to fit our societal needs at whim, without truly examining the lasting ramifications, or questioning the power with which we are experimenting. The early Mesoamericans patiently bred favorable traits into wild teosintes thousands of years ago, but until recently, the genetic modifications to our foods have taken hundreds of years to develop, while in more recent years, we’ve sped up that process to lightspeed.

Excited and inspired by the science and technology that allows us to create these new methods, we haven’t really taken the time or consideration necessary to find out how this may impact our planet, our health, and our civilization as a whole in the long run. Though the science surrounding it may be complicated and confusing, it’s necessary to continue the research and conversation about the potential consequences mono-cropping and bioengineering will have on our environment, our economy, and our health. Our lives and our world may quite literally depend on it.