Corn, the Food that Created Man

Piping hot, smeared with Mexican crema, and topped with lime, cotija cheese, and cayenne pepper, Mexican grilled corn, or elote, is a little piece of heaven.  If you are like me, you may associate corn with summer. Summer is grilling season, when corn is the ubiquitous side dish.  In the chilly winter, I long for the summer months when piles of corn, still in the husk, sit at the farmer’s market with home chefs gathering around it, some husking it before placing it in their bags. Perhaps surprisingly, I also associate corn with ancient civilizations.

One of the incredible stories of history is the encounter between the Spanish and the unknown (to them) advanced civilizations in the New World, including their traditions, language, and food.  It is hard to imagine never having tasted tomatoes, chili peppers, potatoes, chocolate, or corn until that moment.  I expect that, once they experienced corn, the Old World separated time into “BC,” or “before corn” and “AC,” or “after corn.” (You can substitute the “C” for chocolate too, which is a subject for a future yummy blog post!).

It is not a coincidence that I associate corn with civilizations that lived in modern-day Mexico.  As a 20-year old college student, I had studied archaeology abroad in Mexico City.  It was here that I first “discovered” corn, much like the 16th century Spaniards did. Sure, I had eaten corn before, but it had not made a strong impression until that trip.  There, on the crowded and noisy streets of Mexico City, street vendors offered corn to eager customers.

Street vendor, San Cristóbal de la Casas, Mexico

Every time I watched a vendor serve corn to a customer, it played like a silent slow motion dance.  The vendor would plunge his tongs into big pots of boiling water.  As the tongs pushed deeper into the pot, a vibrant yellow edge would suddenly break through the top of the water, slowly revealing the whole cob, steam rising from the kernels.  It was oddly beautiful, this symbol of ancient cultures offering itself to the modern masses.

Corn was life for the ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  Long before the Spanish arrived, these civilizations had already cultivated corn for thousands of years, after domesticating it from a grass called teosinte.

To the Maya, whose civilization peaked beginning in 2000 BC, the creation of man from maize dough was an important myth.  The Maya worshipped a corn god, Hun Hunahpu, and adapted their physical appearance to resemble corn by elongating babies’ heads between pieces of wood.  One theory about the demise of the rulers of Palenque, an ancient Maya city-state, is that the people rebelled when the rains disappeared and the corn crop, along with other staples, was in jeopardy.

Palenque, abandoned in 800 A.D.

The people known as the Aztecs also highly valued corn.  Made up of various ethnic groups who spoke the Nahuatl language, the Aztec civilization flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries.  They also worshipped a corn god called Centeōtl, celebrated the different phases of the corn cycle from planting to harvesting to drying, and sacrificed corn to the gods.  During one of their celebrations, worshippers would soak one another in scented maize flour (which reminds me of the Hindu Holi celebration with scent in the place of the vibrant colors).  Sounds like fun!

Clearly, to the Mesoamericans who first cultivated corn, corn was everything.  The maize cycle influenced ideas about life, power, physical appearance, and spirituality.  In other words, to the Mesoamericans, corn was like Beyoncé.

Lucky for us, the descendents of the ancient Mesoamericans still survive today, along with the maize plant. Today, we can still enjoy the food that created man, along with some of the staples of the ancient and contemporary Mesoamerican diet like tortillas, elote, and atole.

  • Corn Tortillas. Ah, tortillas, that delicious utensil.  Have you had a freshly made corn tortilla?  If not, I recommend it.  Corn is the star of a freshly cooked tortilla. Tacos al pastor, which are tortillas filled with spit-fired grilled marinated pork, are extra delicious when the flavor from the hot corn tortillas melds with the fatty goodness of the pork.   In Mesoamerica, in ancient times and today, hand-made tortillas are cooked on a flat pan, called the comal, over a log fire.  Homemade tortillas are available right here in Fairfield County at Taqueria La Michoacana in Bridgeport, CT.  This place is the real deal.  Go there soon and have a taco made with a freshly made tortilla. You will need to explicitly ask for the hand-made tortillas and you may need to pay extra.  Do it! It’s worth it.  The Taqueria also caters full trays of seasoned meats and tortillas so call them for your Cinco de Mayo party!
Cooking tortillas on a comal, Zinacantán, Mexico
  • Mexican grilled corn, or elote. The word elote comes from “elotl” in the Nahautl language which means sweet corn. Elote, or Mexican grilled corn, is decadent.   The salt and pepper provide the perfect contrast to the Mexican crema which melts into the sweetness of the corn kernels.  Delicious grilled corn is available at Bar Taco in Westport and Stamford, CT and at Bodega in Fairfield, CT.   To make it at home, shop for crema, cotija cheese, and tajín (a spice mix that includes salt, chili peppers and lime) at Los Portales Mexican Grocery Store on Fort Point Street in Norwalk, CT.  By the way, Los Portales serves tacos, tortas, and more at the back of the store, so make it an event!
    Grilled corn at Bar Taco in Westport, CT
  • Atole. This may be a lesser known “staple” in our part of the world, but it is worth trying.  Atole, typically served at breakfast or after dinner, is a warm drink made of corn flour and other ingredients, including vanilla and cinnamon.  At Taqueria La Michoacana in Brdigeport, CT, the Atole is served with dulce de leche (similar to caramel).  It is delicious!
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    Atole at Taqueria La Michoacana in Bridgeport, CT

They say Mexicans refer to themselves as people of the corn. Maybe next time you bite into a delicious cob of corn, perhaps topped with crema, lime, and cayenne, you will think of the ancient civilizations whose descendents still survive, along with their maize plants.

What are your favorite corn dishes?  Drop me a line, or comment below.

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