It’s amazing to know that in a farming area southeast of Oaxaca City, likely somewhere in the highlands past Mitla or Matatlan, is where maize originated. Maize is different from the huge kernel, yellow corn we know in the U.S. Its variegated, multi-colored kernels are smaller and full of healthy richness. The Oaxaca region is home to at least 59 species of maize, from the protein-rich variety used to make tortilla chips to a softer grain mashed for use in tamales. Maize comes in a rainbow of colors: blue, red, black, purple, orange, yellow, creamy white, and a mix of all, each used for a distinctive purpose with distinctive textures and flavors. The cobs vary in size, too, depending on what it is cultivated for.
Photo: Grinding maize in Teotitlan
Farmers in Oaxaca first bred maize some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and from there it spread and was adopted by Africa, Asia and Europe. Worldwide, we eat it roasted on the cob, popped, stripped and cooked into cereal or polenta, ground and baked to become bread or cakes. It is a staple that traces its origins to a possible DNA mix of teosinte and gammagrass (there is still some controversy about origins, since teosinte has very tiny cobs and kernals). Plant geneticists believe that edible maize was developed by Mesoamericans within a 100 year time span — an incredible, accelerated feat! When combined with beans, maize offers a complex protein that is very nutritious.
Though the exact date and circumstances of the first cultivation of maize is a mystery, by 1500 A.D. the Aztec and Mayan civilizations had long called the descendants of that original plant “maize,” literally “that which sustains life,” and claimed that the crop was flesh and blood itself. Maize cob and stalks were incorporated into the stone carved images of Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec leaders connoting royalty derived from the gods and assumed a central place in their headdress. It was a symbol of power, source of life.
In the modern economies of the U.S., East Asia, and Europe, however, it is the ultimate legible” industrial raw material: agribusiness uses its starches and cellulose for fuel, fodder, paint, plastic, and penicillin. The risk is that genetically modified corn will eradicate the local small farmers of southern Mexico who have been practicing sustainable agriculture, farming on 10-acre plots for millenia, using the same milpa techniques as their forebearers to replenish the earth without having to use chemical feritilizers, a stake in the ground for cultural preservation and a healthier food source. Local farmers cannot compete with the lower priced genetically modified corn produced by agribusiness, and we have seen smaller farmers in Teotitlan give up their plots. The debate is fueled around NAFTA and corn imports, providing more corn for more people that may or may not have as much nutritional value as the original source, and the risk of the genetically modified corn wiping out the DNA of the heirloom varieties.
The practice of milpa is the farming technique of growing corn, beans, avocado, and squash all together on one plot of ground, the beans and squash twining around and hanging on to the corn stalks, adding their nutrients to the soil, year after year, with no depletion of minerals. Oaxaca soils have sustained food growth in this manner for thousands of years with no loss of productivity.
You can read more about this in Charles Mann’s book, “1491,” and when you visit Oaxaca and eat tamales and tortillas, think of this food as a 6,000 year old contribution to gastronomy and world health. Ask, if you like, where the corn comes from in order to support the local farmer and local economies. You’ll be doing your part for sustainable development.