“Corny” Rituals Stand the Test of Time

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

It’s a favorite summertime ritual—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, cotija cheese, and maybe a squeeze of lime. Here’s a recipe for the Mexican version of this tasty treat.

I suppose 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.

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 weren’t, we likely wouldn’t recognize it as having anything to do with corn as we know it today—the kernels were small and much farther apart. Additional crossings led to primitive maize (as corn is also called) and ultimately to the modern varieties of corn.

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.

Eventually, Indians throughout North and South America would 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 (One of the characteristics used in defining Mesoamerica was the people’s reliance on agriculture, and particularly on maize)

Source: Diego Rivera's Mural "The Huaxtec Civilization" in the National Palace in Mexico City

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).

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.

In her book Blue Corn and Chocolate, Elisabeth Rosin observed “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…

Comments? I’m all ears… (Sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

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  1. stevie mack says:

    Kitty, I for one love corn on the cob and can’t wait for the summer crop to arrive in the grocery stores. The history of corn and its influence on the development of civilizations in the new world is a fascinating one. We always emphasize the importance of corn in Mexico’s history in our presentations for our travelers. Soon we’ll be leaving for our Days of the Dead trip to Oaxaca where we will see living evidence of its continuing influence in the markets, the restaurants, on the Day of the Dead altars, and more. This is perfect time for us to personally invite our readers to join us this year on our trip from Oct. 27-Nov.3. No bones about it, it is a trip of a lifetime!

    Kitty Williams Reply:

    Yes, the Days of the Dead in Mexico is our favorite fall ritual! Hope we can encourage a few others to join us!


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