On Corn 🌽
A connective tissue of the Americas, from Mexico to the Caribbean and beyond.
Many of us think we know corn. It’s yellow, right? On a cob. You shuck ears of it during the summer before boiling it or putting it on the grill, then you spread a pad of butter over the hot kernels, watching impatiently as it melts to complement sweetness with fat and funk. Or corn is popped, the kernels exploding in hot oil on the stove or in a microwavable bag, to be poured into a big bowl and chomped on in handfuls while wearing sweatpants. Then there’s cornmeal, corn tortillas, corn chips, cornstarch—the flavor and purposes of this cereal grain so entrenched that it can be shocking to realize that 98.5 percent of the corn grown in the United States is inedible, grown just to become things like ethanol, wall plaster, shoe polish, and cattle feed.
In his new book Masa: Techniques, Recipes, and Reflections on a Timeless Staple, Jorge Gaviria—the founder of heirloom masa harina importer Masienda, with whom I’ll be talking in a virtual MOFAD event next Monday, October 17—attempts to untangle the origins and uses of this ingredient, showing how to use it in mainly Mexican dishes (corn is believed to have originated in central Mexico 7,000 years ago) but expanding as well to El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, and Colombia. Though masa harina (literally translating to “dough flour”), where the corn goes through a process of nixtamalization through soaking in an alkaline solution, is the particular backbone of Mexican cuisine, here Gaviria shows that corn has been a connective tissue throughout the foods of the Americas.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, in explaining the role of this grain in the Mayan story of Creation, corn is unique because it was developed and cultivated by the humans for whom it acted as significant sustenance and symbol:
“…corn is the product of relationship not only with the physical world, but with people too. The sacred plant of our origin created people, and people created corn, a great agricultural innovation from its teosinthe ancestor. Corn cannot exist without us to sow it and tend its growth; our beings are joined in obligate symbiosis. From these reciprocal acts of creation arise the elements that were missing from the other attempts to create sustainable humanity: gratitude, and a capacity for reciprocity.”
Before I go forward, I’ve had to slow down and build myself a mental glossary to even think about the big subject of corn:
For starters, the word “masa” is so closely associated with corn and Mexico that Merriam-Webster defines it as such, often causing confusion, but to most Spanish speakers, it just means “dough” (sourdough starter is called “masa madre,” for example).
Masa harina and harina de maíz — known as cornmeal — are not the same, with the latter not going through nixtamalization and often being more coarse.
“Maize” is how the grain is referred to in scientific, academic, and more international contexts. This comes from the Arawak word “mahiz,” which meant “life-giving seed” (the Arawak were an Indigenous people of South America and the Caribbean, which includes the commonly-known-as Taíno inhabitants of what is now Puerto Rico, where I live), which gave way to the Spanish “maíz.”
Betty Fussell described the often brain-twisting situation in a 1999 piece in Social Research titled “Translating Maize into Corn: The Transformation of America's Native Grain”: “To say the word ‘corn’ is to plunge into the tragi-farcical mistranslations of language and history.” Yet I will persist, because we are all nothing if not subject to the tragi-farcical conditions of life on this planet.
Here in Puerto Rico, corn hasn’t been considered too significant an aspect of the cuisine in recent decades.
Hunks of sweet corn will be seen in sancocho, a soup, and the most common way to see cornmeal used is in sorullitos, a fritter served as an appetizer, sometimes stuffed with cheese, often dipped in mayoketchup. There is also funche, a porridge of cornmeal that was a staple food during the early 20th century and fell out of fashion, having been associated closely with poverty and hunger, according to Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity by Cruz M. Ortiz Cuadra (my copy is always on my desk, yes).
But what might be everyone’s favorite Puerto Rican corn dish are güanimes, which are pre-Columbian and look a lot like tamales, and the masa is similarly wrapped in corn husks. These are considered a precursor to pasteles, the Christmas season favorite made from a masa of root vegetables that gets wrapped in banana leaf before being boiled. (I love mine with lots of garbanzos and olives.)
Now archaeological research is showing that maize may have been a more significant part of the local diet before colonization than had been considered.
“...[B]ased on the results of new experiments regarding grinding and pressure damage to starch grains, it is clear that maize in the Caribbean was ground, baked and consumed as bread…,” write the archaeologists Hayley L. Mickleburgh and Jaime R. Pagán-Jiménez in their paper, “New insights into the consumption of maize and other food plants in the pre-Columbian Caribbean from starch grains trapped in human dental calculus.” “Based on our results we tentatively suggest maize consumption in the Caribbean was at least in some cases associated with feasting and ceremonial activities.”
A USDA report from 1957 titled “Races of Maize in Cuba even notes, “The Arawak introduced agriculture into the West Indies” starting in Puerto Rico. Corn was included among crops like cassava, beans, tobacco, and more.
The cornmeal used in Puerto Rico has more in common with the dishes in Masa that come from Venezuela and Colombia, like arepas, but the knowledge of soaking the hard kernels of this grain then grinding them down for use was widespread, just as the growing of the three sisters of agriculture in the Americas—corn, beans, and squash—became commonplace. Corn made its way to Long Island, where I grew up, from Mexico, and Indigenous people on the East End would plant fish from the nearby sea among its seeds as fertilizer. In “‘A Laudable Spirit of Enterprise’: Renegotiating Land, Natural Resources, and Power on Post-Revolutionary Long Island,” Jennifer Anderson writes about that practice and notes wheat, rye, oats, and corn were all grown in the region for overseas markets, including the Caribbean.
Corn still grows on Long Island’s East End. I grew up getting lost in corn mazes (what an etymological coincidence) during Halloween season and eating hulking ears of the sweet stuff, but also admiring at farmstands the “decorative” varieties in different colors. Every fall, along with pumpkins, these would adorn our front door: a welcoming sign of harvest season’s abundance. The artist and farmer Peter Treiber of Treiber Farms in Peconic, whose piece showing off his crops was in the show “Nafas” I recently wrote about, has been growing corn and has saved now, he says, several pounds of seed in order to plant a larger crop.
“I went to the Young Farmers Conference up at Stone Barns in the fall of 2019 and at the end of the conference, we did this sort of ceremony where we were in a big circle and we passed around ears of Eight Row Flint corn that was grown by populations in the Hudson Valley,” he tells me. Since beginning to grow some of his own, he’s done the process of nixtamalization to make his own masa and tortillas. A wooden press he’d hand-made was part of his piece at the exhibit.
Corn’s role as connection and bridge, representing a sharing of knowledge in and through the Americas, is something that goes back centuries and pre-dates colonialism. This continues, and we keep learning even more about its significance—its necessity to us, to our feasts and livelihoods, and our necessity to it. Not just yellow, not just sweet, but a diverse grain rooted deep.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include a masa harina–based recipe for Puerto Rican sorullitos with a spicy cilantro dipping sauce. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I got ahead on work because I’m right now in New York with my family, and all I really wanted to do was revisit Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You. A favorite book of mine. But I’m also reading Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics by Marion Nestle and revisiting in full Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
Ok, so I bought Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce on a whim at Costco and it’s changed my life? I love it. Marinated portobellos in it for “steaks,” the process for which I’ll chronicle in an upcoming From the Kitchen on cooking a vegetarian steakhouse dinner. What are you steakhouse favorites that I can make vegan?