The Incas had two gods of corn â€“ or, more properly, maize â€“ which they honoured in the fourth month of their 18-month calendar. The festival culminated in grisly spectacle, as a young woman, dressed in a splendid robe and a plumed tiara and glinting with gems and gold, was beheaded at sunset with a knife made of sharpened flint. The priest then flayed her while her body was still warm, and dressed himself in her skin, sharing with his acolytes cakes made of corn bound with human blood. He wore this gruesome costume for a week, until at last he consented to the girl’s burial in some qualified, indignant peace.
This was a civilisation â€“ though little was civilised about its religion â€“ made possible and potent by corn. The Holy Roman emperor Charles V, when sending out parties to loot and subjugate that stretch of the New World, insisted that the settlers sowed wheat, as if corn itself were somehow to blame for the frenzied gore of the pagans. But wheat wouldn’t grow in Peru, nor particularly in Mexico where the corn-eating Aztecs were enslaved or infected by the arriving Europeans. Before long the explorers returned to the native cereal.
Maize is the grain of the Americas. It appeared in Mesoamerica as thedomesticated versionÂ of a wild grass called teosinte. (Its Latin name, Zea mays, sounds like it might have played at Woodstock.) It was a good candidate for domestication because it grows readily from seed to harvest in around three months. Over the centuries, humans selected maize with bigger kernels and wider cobs and eventually with leaves that grew over the fruit to form husks. This means that the plant is now incapable of reproducing without human help. Wild maize no longer exists.
Corn had reached south eastern Canada by about 1000AD, but one of the lingering unknowns of food history is how it first came to Europe. The classic view holds that Columbus brought it back with him, but the Chinese seem to have been growing maize as early as 1516, and it rather stretches credulity to posit that the plant could have travelled there from Iberia in little over 20 years. There are alsoÂ etymological reasonsÂ to suggest that corn was known in Africa before Columbus was born. And there is some evidence that the plant had reached Papua New Guinea (presumably via Polynesia and the scattered atolls of the Pacific) 1,000 years ago. It could then have travelled west through Asia and been carried by the Arabs to Africa. This discussion may seem like a trivial footnote but, if true, it upends a sophisticates-and-primitives view of world history and globalisation, and it undermines the pernicious idea that the “Indians” of the New World were somehow waiting to be “discovered”.
At any rate, maize soon became the staple crop for roughly a fifth of the world’s people, mostly in Africa (where it’s commonly called mealie). It’s not an especially nutritious plant: it has less energy and protein than wheat or rice, which is one reason breakfast cereal manufacturers soup their products with extra vitamins. The indigenous Americans enjoyed a relatively balanced diet by mixing their corn with beans for extra protein, and they developed also the so-called “three sisters” technique, whereby corn stalks provided a frame for beans to climb and squashes offered ground cover. Native Americans also learned to treat their corn with alkalis likeÂ limeÂ or wood ash, which made the kernels easier to grind and “unlocked” the niacin within them. When modern Americans started growing corn on a vast scale for human consumption many neglected this process, and as recently as the 1930s sporadic cases of the disfiguring diseaseÂ pellagraÂ occurred in the corn belt.
Much of America’s modern prosperity was built on corn. Iowa and Illinois are essentially gigantic cornfields, though only a small fraction (less than 3%) of their corn is intended for human consumption. The rest becomes livestock feed, forage, silage and grain, and 85% of the total is now genetically modified. Almost half the American maize crop is converted into biofuel, and the price of corn at the Chicago exchange increasingly fluctuates with the price of oil. This can haveÂ notorious consequencesÂ for the millions of people who rely on maize to avoid starving.
Michael Pollan points outÂ how reliant the western (read: junk) diet is on corn, that 30 of the 37 ingredients in a chicken nugget come directly or indirectly from it. The entire fast food industry could not survive without the grain, which feeds almost all American cattle and which brings their beef its babyish and unpleasant sweetness. On the subject of unpleasant sweetness, corn has almost certainly contributed to theAmerican obesity crisis, converted into the cheap and destructive high fructose syrup that has all but replaced sugar in the country’s fizzy drinks.
Corn is like the dog of the food world: humans have controlled its breeding, mixed its varieties, selected it for specific traits like height or strength or the size of its ears. The different cultivars have different specialisations â€“ for cob corn, popcorn, for making bourbon whiskey, and for the endless parochial yellowy mushes of polenta, mealie pap, sadza, and grits. We may think of it as primarily a savoury ingredient, but it also features in several puddings like the custardy curau of Brazil. Sweetcorn is a genetic freak in which the sugar failed to convert to starch. The religious fundamentalist and masturbation obsessive JH Kellogg released his first packet of cornflakes in 1896, and British breakfasts are the poorer for it, but it would probably sound corny to say that his company beat off all of its competitors.