"Corny" Rituals Stand the Test of Time
It’s a favorite summertime ritual in the United States—steaming ears of sweet corn slathered with butter. Corn–or elote–is a popular treat in Mexico, too. And there the ritual is even more elaborate, involving your choice of toppings such as mayonnaise, chile powder, cotijacheese, and maybe a squeeze of lime. Here’s a recipe for the Mexican version of this tasty treat.
It’s fitting that the whole corn-on-the-cob ritual in Mexico should be more evolved than in the U.S. After all, they’ve been doing it a lot longer.
Origin and History
Scientists believe that corn was developed at least 7000 years ago by people living in central Mexico. Evidence suggests that cultivated corn arose through a series of natural crossings, beginning with a wild grass that eventually yielded a plant known as teosinte. Teosinte is now extinct, but even if it weren’t, we likely wouldn’t recognize it as having anything to do with corn as we know it today—the kernels were smaller and much farther apart. Additional crossings led to primitive maize (as corn is also called) and ultimately to the modern varieties of corn.
"I'm as Corny as Kansas in August..."
Lyrics from “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from the musical "South Pacific" by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Today, corn is a completely domesticated crop. In its present form, it could not exist in the wild. The perpetuation of corn through the centuries is due entirely to human intervention and care.
Although we know that corn is indigenous to the western hemisphere, its exact birthplace is less certain. Corn pollen grain believed to be 80,000 years old was obtained from drill cores 200 feet below Mexico City; however, other archeological studies have made the case that the birthplace of corn is actually in what is today the state of Oaxaca.
The Role of Corn in Native Cultures
Eventually, native peoples throughout North and South America would come to depend upon this crop for much of their food. By very definition, corn played a vital role in the lives and culture of the people throughout Mesoamerica (Mesoamerica does not refer to a geographic location, but rather a set of shared cultural characteristics, including the construction of pyramids and a reliance on agriculture, and particularly on maize).
The great civilizations of Mesoamerica —the Maya, Aztec, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Olmec, and others— could not have existed without corn. It formed the basis of their diet and was their most revered crop.
Simply put, the people lived by and for corn; it was integral to all aspects of life from religion to mythology. The Maya considered corn a gift from the gods and believed that cultivating it was a sacred duty. In fact, it was held in such high esteem that the most sacred of stones, jade, was used to symbolize corn (the green color was also reminiscent of tender green corn).
Legends and Stories
Corn nourished the culture of the Maya as well as their physical bodies. Because corn has such a high yield, the Maya were able to feed not only the masses that produced it, but also the non-laboring elite. As a result, there was time and energy to specialize in new skills. Some became architects who oversaw the building of grand palaces and temples, while others helped to push Mayan mathematics and astronomy to remarkable heights. (So much for telling our kids to eat their Wheaties—maybe it should be Corn Flakes instead!)
According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, the gods mixed their own blood with corn flour to create humankind. And thus the Maya were children of the corn. Along with gods that were personified by the fierce jaguar and the life-giving rain, the Maya worshipped the tall grass that fed them and enabled their culture to flourish.
When Columbus arrived in the New World, corn was the major crop cultivated by the Taino Indians that he encountered in the Caribbean, and he returned to Europe with samples. Corn was a staple for many of the native groups in North America, as well. When the pilgrims arrived in what is today New England, they were able to survive largely because they learned to cultivate corn.
Many Native American traditions, stories and ceremonies celebrate corn as one of the “three sisters” (maize, beans and squash). And indeed, while corn has some protein, it is basically a source of carbohydrate, which supplies the human body with energy. When combined with beans, squash and chile peppers, it provides a nearly ideal diet, with all the protein, vitamins and minerals needed for good health.
More American than Apple Pie?
In her fascinating book Blue Corn and Chocolate, Elisabeth Rosin observed that “corn is the ultimate, the essential American food, the one that began here, the one that stayed here, the one that nourished all who came here.”
One might even make the case that corn is “more American than apple pie.” Certainly its role as a summertime staple–and the requisite side dish at every all-American BBQ seems secure. Through the ages and across the continents, we humans have always engaged in rituals to mark the passage of seasons and the seasons of our lives. And if anyone wants to call that “corny,” well, so be it…
Rosin, Elisabeth. Blue Corn and Chocolate (Knopf Cooks America Series). Knopf, 1992.
© 2019 Kitty Williams Fisher