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  • Writer's pictureJon Mychal Heatherly

The Amazing Maize or Corn

Updated: May 17, 2022

From the wild teosinte grain of Mesoamerica

“There’s every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”

- Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”


Indigenous Mesoamericans started cultivating maize, or corn, from a wild cereal grain in about 9000 BCE or earlier. They first domesticated maize from a hard, wild grain called teosinte. Genetic mapping and investigative research suggest it came from the Balsas River region of southern Mexico - near the Tehuacan valley.

What Americans call corn, maize surpasses wheat or rice in global production by metric tons per year. World War 2 technologies like mechanized agriculture, nitrate fertilizers, and monoculture methods enabled this. Furthermore, it’s fertilized by the wind blowing pollen grains into the long silks, and this characteristic allowed the mushrooming application of pesticides.

Scientific name: Zea mays Flavor: Sweet, starchy, buttery when cooked. Uses: Cereal, cosmetics, feed, food, fuel, folklore, popcorn, starch, sugar, and more Origin: Mexico, Balsas River region

By Addicted04 via Wikimedia

Image by Gzimavak via Wikimedia

Related: Barley, rice, rye, sorghum, sugarcane, wheat Companions: Beans, cucumber, marjoram, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, radish, squash, zucchini Pests: Armyworms, corn rootworm, cutworms, European corn borer, nematodes, potato stem borer and hopvine borer, seed corn maggot, slugs Pollinators: Wind pollination

Growth & Harvest

Modern corn requires human intervention to reproduce, partly because we bred it to stay on the stem when ripe. Also, modern corn consists of the homogenized yellow dent number 2, making it susceptible to disease and therefore reliant on heavier inputs - just like cavendish bananas. As a result, heirloom and indigenous maize look quite different.

In nature, the teosinte plant only produces 7-12 kernels, and often one cob about half the length of a golf pencil. Native Americans from the Olmec to the Aztecs all contributed to the process of cultivating corn that continues today. Maize made its way to South America by trade around 6000 BCE, and evidence shows it in North America by 2500 BCE.'

Native Mesoamericans practiced a form of companion planting called the “Three Sisters.” Maise would grow tall, and up the corn beans would crawl. They planted squash to sprawl. You would plant these at different times, starting with corn.

The corn would provide height while the beans fixed nitrogen into the soil from the air. The squash leaves would protect the ground and block weed growth. Get creative by experimenting with squash, legume, or corn varieties.

Maize as Food

Humans eat 40% of the 1 billion tons produced each year globally - mainly sweet corn. But the remaining 60% of field corn is made into livestock feed, ethanol fuel, corn sugar food preservatives, and more. There’s also corn flour, corn starch, corn flakes, corn tortillas, popcorn, and the list goes on.

Early European colonizers held superstitions where they believed that eating “Indian food” would turn them into Indians. Nonetheless, the failure of European crops and necessity helped them acquire the taste. Europeans who subsisted on mostly corn lacked the nutrition to produce niacin and suffered pellagra.

The body needs lysine and tryptophan to make niacin or vitamin B3. A limited diet deficient in vitamin B3 can lead to pellagra, which includes symptoms of skin inflammation, dementia, and diarrhea. In their frenzy to conquer the place, Europeans missed where natives had a unique process to make corn more digestible.

Nixtamalization involves boiling the maize kernels and then soaking them in an alkaline solution, like powdered limestone or wood ashes. This process unlocks the available nutrients from the Nahuatl “nextli” meaning ashes, and “tamalli” meaning maize flower. You can avoid the ill effects of pellagra this way.

Nutrients: Serving 100 grams of boiled corn kernels, or one ear 73% Water, 21 g carbs, 3.4g protein, 1.5 g fat 4.5 g sugar, 2.4 g fiber, 96 calories, 3.6 mg Vit C

Recipe: Elote or Mexican Street Corn

Ingredients: Cilantro, corn ears, cotija cheese (sub parm or feta, or omit), garlic, lime, paprika, red pepper seasoning, salt, sour cream

Directions: For this elote recipe, we will first make the crema to slather on the corn.

  1. Preheat the oven or grill to 400°F.

  2. Mexican crema requires mixing 8 oz of sour cream, 1 lime, and then seasoning to taste with minced garlic, salt, cilantro, and pepper.

  3. Grill the corn in the husk or remove it for some grill char.

  4. After cooking and unhusking corn, baste it with crema or plain sour cream.

  5. Sprinkle cilantro, cheese, red pepper, or paprika on your elote to taste.

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