In Mexico corn is king. From the presidential palace to the most modest rural peasant shack no meal is complete without a basket of tortillas on the table. In the form of a vast variety of dishes corn is consumed for desayuno, comida and cena. Corn-based atole is a popular hot drink to accompany corn tamales. City plazas feature deliciously fragrant corn boiling in its own juices, served in cups with available condiment additions of chili, lime, cheese and mayonnaise. Ubiquitous roadside stands serve roasted corn slathered with chili and lime. The tamale seller pushing his cart gives his recognizable grito, the same heard in the national capital as in the smallest pueblo, as he peddles his wife's or mother’s tamales.
Mexico’s love affair with corn started 9,000 years ago. The oldest corn cobs have been found in dry caves near Tehuacan, Puebla. Over the millennia it spread throughout the Americas. Scientists believe the humble and wild teozintle plant is its ancestor.
With the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago large animals became extinct or moved north. People who stayed behind had to search for other sources of food. One plant they kept their eyes open for was teosintle. Although you would sooner break your teeth than bite through a teosintle seed, someone along the way discovered that if taken back to camp and dropped in fire it would explode becoming white and starchy -- the very first popcorn. In addition to that, any food currently prepared with maize can also be made -- though labor-intensive -- with teozintle. Without realizing it early Mesoamerican wanderers were involved in a selective breeding process by bringing only the largest seeds back to their camps where some of them, accidentally dropped, grew and cross pollinated with other plants from large seeds. With time they created a new species of plant which we call corn or maize -- the most abundant of modern grains -- which grows at every elevation from sea level to 3,500 meters above sea level with varieties that are drought-resistant and blight-resistant.
Not only did Mesoamericans create a new species of plant, they created one dependent on people for its very survival. People have to remove the husk and for the next generation of corn to grow, people have to remove the seeds from the cob. Corn cannot do either by itself.
An amazingly productive crop, corn takes only 120 days to mature. Some of today's varieties produce 150 seeds per cob. More than one per day! The traditional milpa planted with corn, beans, chiles, and squash could feed the farmer and 11 other people for a full year with one crop. Beans and squash replenished soil that would otherwise have been depleted by iron-hungry corn. Innovative ancient farmers also developed chinampas, raised fields in shallow lakes and swamps, on which they could farm year-round. By using nurseries new corn plants -- later transplanted -- got a head start before the previous crop had been harvested and 4-5 crops of plants which take 120 days to grow could be harvested annually. The Mesoamerican chinampa farmer could feed 60 people each year!
Beans, corn, and squash are often referred to as the “Three Sisters.” If consumed in the same day they form a nutrient triad containing the necessary amino acids humans require to produce protein. Add chiles to the diet and plant iron can be converted to iron necessary for human consumption. Chile is one of the oldest cultivated foods with evidence of its cultivation in the Americas 7000 years ago. All of these foods, now farmed throughout the world, were first domesticated in Mesoamerica.
Chinampa canals grew small farmed fish that provided DHA, Omega 3 polyunsaturated oil (aka fish oil), another necessary dietary component, particularly important in the development of mental capacity and visual acuity. These small fish were easy to dry and preserve. Other dietary supplements included grasshoppers, caterpillars and other insects. Indigenous markets still feature these foods of their forbearers.
As corn evolved throughout Mesoamerica each farmer developed a personal seed bank. The corn in one valley might differ dramatically from that grown on the hillside or even in the next valley. Some corn was tastier, other easier to preserve, other perhaps more hardy. The result was that Mesoamerica protected corn from the ravages of single crop blight like the blight that attacked Ireland’s potatoes. Even now, when blight impacts northern North American corn, transnational conglomerates look to Mexico’s seed banks for immune varieties. The International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat estimates 3000 varieties of maize are currently found in Mexico.
Next time you absent-mindedly reach for a tortilla on the table, buy a taco or eat a tamale, think about the ingenuity of the early Mesoamerican farmer's role in making it all possible.