Corn, one of the staples of a traditional Southern diet, originated in Native American cooking and spread by way of African-American soul food and through the cocinas of Latin America, ultimately becoming firmly rooted in kitchens of the American South. Actually, I think it’s fair to say, throughout the entire United States. But why stop there? With a world production of 823 million metric tons (2008), this amazing grain, Zea mays sp., corn or maize, is the number one staple food globally. It’s really more accurate to call it maize, rather than corn because maize always refers to the grain Zea mays in all it’s variations, while, outside of the US, ‘corn’ can mean any cereal.
Since maize was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, it has been used as a major food crop for over 2500 years. Europeans first learned about this useful grain from the Olmec, Maya, Inca, Aztecs and all those unnamed indigenous peoples of the Americas, whom they subjugated. Conquistadores brought maíz back to Spain in the 16th century, where it grew so successfully that it was soon planted all across Europe. Subsequently, Portuguese colonizers and slave traders brought corn to Africa, where it joined tubers as one of the staple crops.
In the US, Native Americans had established a form of corn farming called the Three Sisters, whereby the three staple foods, maize, beans, and squash, were planted together. Cornstalks support the beans, which in turn provide nitrogen and squash protects both from pests. The Anasazi of the American Southwest added a fourth crop to attract bees to encourage pollination. I find it interesting that this corn-bean symbiotic growing system is still used in the French Hautes-Pyrénées area to grow their famous Tarbais beans (see post “Moses and the Cassoulet Challenge“).
Before I finally get to the part, where I tell you about my cheesy cornbread, let me mention one more curious fact. When the Europeans took maize back with them, they neglected to learn, how maize should be processed to become the nutritious food it can be. They didn’t bother to watch Mayan grandmothers process mahiz (original Taíno term for maize) through nixtamalización, yes, nixtamalization. This process converts corn kernels without much nutritional value for humans into a nourishing food. But those conquistadores didn’t bother to learn that minor fact and, as a result, pellagra became a widespread communal scourge in poor European and African regions, where unprocessed maize had been introduced as the main food source.
The Spanish term nixtamalización is based on the Aztec word nextamallì, putting together nextlì = ashes and tamallì = raw maize dough. Many of us are familiar with tamales, the leaf-wrapped corn dough dish, which has huge nutritious and symbolic significance, both for Latin Americans and Native Americans. So, the origin of the word tamale and tamale preparation, go straight back to the ancient Aztec people: nextamallì, processed corn flour or masa! The point of nixtamalization is the removal of the outer hull of each corn kernel through boiling in an alkaline solution of ash (potassium hydroxide) and lime (calcium hydroxide) in water. This process promotes a number of beneficial chemical reactions, for example, it kills most toxins naturally contained in maize. Its main benefit is freeing niacin (vitamin B3) for uptake in the consumer’s digestive system, thus preventing pellagra, a niacin deficiency disease. The oldest known application of this process was discovered in Guatemala and is dated to around 1200 BCE!
Just for the fun of it, in this video, you can watch CIA* Chef de la Vega prepare ‘masa pura’ for tamales.
Now let’s finally get back to me and my cornbread, which I baked the other day to complement some nice, thick leftover vegetable stew with pork sausage. Just this once it came out shaped perfectly. Traditionally my baked goods look uneven, squished or otherwise mildly deformed – not this time! The dough contained, aside from the obvious ingredients, like cornmeal and eggs, a can of creamed corn and a heaped cup of mixed, shredded cheeses; not to forget crushed cumin seeds, nutmeg, and buttermilk. The results were moist and flavorful … and pretty.
Cornbread works really well with any hearty Winter dish or loaded dinner salad.