How Corny Can You Get?

Asia had its rice, Europe had its oats and wheat, America had its corn. Maize, or Indian corn, originated in the Americas and Mexico and has been their mainstay for thousands of years. However, the plant has come a long way since its ancient form. Cultivated for centuries, it grew to become taller, hardier and sweeter than its original beginnings. A staple food, along with squash, beans, quinoa and other grains, it was highly valued by early civilizations and still is.

Scientists believe people living in central America and Mexico began developing corn at least 7000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called teosinte, which looked very different from our modern-day version. The stalks and ears were much smaller, the kernels placed farther apart. Corn proved a valuable resource for early civilizations, not only just for food. Every part of the ear, including husks and corn silk, was used for bedding, baskets, stuffings, decorations, religious ceremonies and even smoking pipes.

In North America, corn was here long before the white man, arriving from Mexico and points south, thousands of years ago. The Native Americans, who called it maize, taught the early settlers how to grind kernels into a flour which was then used for making pudding, porridge and breads. They also taught them how to dry corn and use it as an animal feed and store it over the long winters. Believe it or not, some types of corn could even be popped for a treat and decoration, just like today. Around 2500 BC, as maize began to spread to the north, it was first cultivated in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. In the U.S. alone, we grow 361 million metric tons annually, and corn is the largest crop in the Americas, second worldwide.

Exclusively a New World crop and unknown in Europe. the word “maize” was originally Spanish, and comes from the word mahiz in the Arawak language, and in the early 1600s it was not yet a common word in England. The settlers called it “Indian corn”, which soon got shortened to just “corn.” Because of its versatility and ability to adapt to different soils and climates, corn became a familiar crop in Spain and Italy during the 1500s although still not integrated into their cuisines on a broad basis.

In the 1600s, European settlers brought their own grains on the ships, which included wheat, rye, oats, and barley. But they soon found these grains did not grow as well in the cold New England climate as they had across the pond. When introduced to maize by the Native American Indians, they quickly embraced the new crop and learned how to utilize it to its full advantage. They made cornbread, grits, porridge, johnnycakes, even moonshine. And barnyard animals happily munched on it throughout the long winters. Ships returning to England took cuttings and dried corn back home for the Brits, who used the new curious yellow kernels for bourbon whisky and animal feed. Pity explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) who missed out entirely. Maize didn’t appear in China until the mid-1500s and was probably initiated by the Portuguese who found it grew well in Asian climates. It was most likely mature field corn, ground into a form of mush and certainly took a backseat to rice.

It’s highly likely that Columbus brought back corn to Europe after his whirlwind voyage to the Americas in 1492. For centuries afterwards, the word corn was generic, describing all cereal grains in general, and it was probably used in early years pretty much for animal fodder. The Europeans and Brits were slow to adopt it for human consumption, preferring their familiar oats, wheat and barley.

But not Thomas Jefferson. In the early 1800s, corn was among his plantation’s many flourishing crops, and he proudly served his favorite corn pudding frequently at his bountiful dinners. As a vegetable aficionado, he also enjoyed it in other forms, including roasted on the cob and in a simple cold salad.

The Midwestern states of Indiana, Iowa and Illinois produce the majority of the nation’s crop, and our American cuisine seems unimaginable without the many forms we enjoy from one of our favorite vegetables. Sadly, corn has come under fire lately because of high fructose corn syrup and its proliferation of Genetically Modified (GMO) mutations. Although somewhat removed from the Indian corn our ancestors first encountered, it still continues to thrive as a major crop here in the U.S. as well as worldwide. Summer especially goes hand in hand with our beloved corn, and what would movies be without it popped and covered with melted butter, or fairs and carnivals without corn dogs. No matter how you view it, America is truly a corny country. And that’s not just chicken feed.

Author Dale Phillip loves corn in its many forms, and growing up in the Midwest, her family enjoyed it daily during the summer season. As a child she once got lost in a large cornfield on her uncle’s farm, but the traumatic experience never diminished her appetite for one of her favorite vegetables. She invites you to view her many other articles on the history of Food and Drink, and her blog:

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