A Right Earful: The History of Corn
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks into the history of corn. From its origins in Mexico, and its spread throughout the Americas and the rest of the world, corn has played a role in trade, through migration of peoples – whether voluntary or involuntary – and through colonization. And particularly, corn, and the Native peoples knowledge in growing and preparing corn, played a role in the survival of the early colonists in what would become the United States of America. But corn has uses beyond food including in the making of toys and furniture, as currency, and livestock feed. So, make sure to tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE SEASON NINE
A RIGHT EARFUL: THE HISTORY OF CORN
Did you hear about the corn farmer who won the Nobel Peace Prize?
No, Simon, I did not hear about the corn farmer who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yes. Apparently, he won it for his contribution to world hominy.
Oh. That is so corny.
Oh, I love doing these jokes. Okay, let’s start.
Hi everybody and welcome to a brand-new episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And, on today’s very special episode we are going to be getting grain-ular – see what I did there? – and talk about the most produced grain in the world, and one is, shall we say, with its rivals – wheat and rice – make up nearly 51% of the calorific intake of the world every day, that’s according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.
Now, this grain is, of course, corn or maize. And, as well as the many other requests I have received to add this to the list of Eat My Globe episodes, I would particularly like to thank our listener, Maxine, who sent the suggestion, just as I was putting this season’s list together. So, thank you, Maxine. And, of course, if any of you out there have any more ideas for great episodes, please do let us know. We love to hear them.
Now, to finish the story about the three grains, the other two I mentioned are of course, rice – which in 2021 and 2022 generated 519 million tons produced worldwide – and about which we created hopefully a very interesting episode in Season 8. And, wheat – which will produce 776.7 million tons in the same period. Corn, on the other hand, will be produced to the level of 1,192 million tons in the same period. Although, as we shall find out, not all of the corn finds its way into the human diet with much ending up in livestock feed and industrial use.
But, before we go into all of that, let’s do what we always do here at the Eat My Globe HQ. Let’s try to be very clear about what it is we are discussing. According to our chums at Britannica, they say corn is
“Corn (Zea mays), also called Indian corn or maize, cereal plant of the grass family (Poaceae) and its edible grain. The domesticated crop originated in the Americas and is one of the most widely distributed of the world’s food crops. Corn is used as livestock feed, as human food, as biofuel, and as raw material in industry.”
Which is a useful definition as it not only tells us about the botanical denomination of corn, but also some of the other names by which it is known, where we believe that it was first domesticated, and how it is used in food and other uses up to the present day.
What the definition doesn’t tell us is that there are many, many varieties of corn recognized as being grown. Almost 300 in total just in the Western Hemisphere and as many as 700 more, with six types initially being produced in what is now the United States, the country that is currently the world’s biggest producer. These were “flint,” “dent,” “sweet,” “flour,” “pop,” and “waxy.” Of those, the dominant ones currently in American agriculture are the “flint” and the “dent”varieties.
So, let’s talk about some of those names. The term “Flint Corn,” which also had another name, “Indian Corn,” comes from a particular type of corn with kernels that could be single or multi-colored and was grown by the Native Americans. It was known as “Indian Corn” by the early colonists who learned the growing techniques from the Native peoples. And, it was dubbed the same when Columbus brought it back to Spain after his first explorative ventures to the area at the end of the 15th century. The “Flint” designation came from the hard nature of the kernels, and the combination of this hard layer and its soft inner starch meant that when the flint kernels dried, they shrank about the same way. This also meant that the multi-colored kernel husks made great decorations and that they could also be eaten by both livestock and humans.
The dent corn derives its name from the dent that forms in the kernels as they age. Dent corn is used mostly for livestock. It may also be used in the making of products such as ethanol, sweeteners, such as fructose, which you might see as “corn syrup.” Its yellow and white varieties may also be used in food we eat like tortilla chips and other snacks. And, the white variety could also be ground or dry milled to make cornmeal or grits.
And, what about that term “Maize”?
It is a description that is in fact used by more people around the world about this ingredient than that of “corn.” Although, in some cases, the term “maize” may appear more regularly in scientific or formal purposes, while the term “corn” being used for food purposes. Matters are further complicated by the fact that in the countries of what is now Great Britain – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the term “corn” – before the arrival of “maize” – may be applied to any grain. In England, it could be used for wheat and barley. And in Scotland and Ireland, “corn” usually referred to oats.
That term “maize” itself is believed to have had its origins with the indigenous Arawak language spoken by the native Taino peoples, who were the first peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus and his crew on their travels in 1492. The Taino people lived – amongst other places in the Caribbean – Guanahani, or San Salvador as Columbus called it, in what is now the Bahamas, where he and his crew first landed on October 12, 1492, and in Mole St. Nicholas in what is now Haiti, on December 6, 1492. The word, “maize,” was a Spanish version of the local word “mahiz,” which meant quote, “bread of life” or quote, “grain of the gods.” End quote. This shows just how important mahiz, maize or corn was to the people of this land. And it soon became apparent to Columbus that the grain was of value across on the other side of the Americas. While exploring Cuba, members of Columbus’ crew brought back
“a sort of grain they call maiz [Zea mays], which was well tasted, bak’d, dry’d and made into flour.”
But, we will come back to Christopher Columbus in a moment. Right now, I’d like to remain in the Americas and look at how this grain that is now so important all over the world began its life in Mexico. It is an answer that has frustrated scientists and historians for generations. As the author of “Corn: A History,” Joseph Kastner, put it
“It seems strange that such a familiar plant should have any mystery surrounding it.”
And yet it does. At the heart of this mystery are two aspects. The first, that corn does not exist naturally in the wild, as it lacks a natural disability to disperse its seeds. So, it is a crop that must be planted and maintained by the humans. And the second, by the relationship of corn with a Mexican plant – sometimes decried as a weed – named “teosinte.” Teosinte takes its name from the local language and means “grain of the gods.”
There have been many debates about the relationship between corn and teosinte, who see the two just as cousins, or as it were, with similar strands to them, but not as closely related as some scientist would have us believe. And those that even argue that there is no relationship between the two plants and that corn is, in fact, related to an earlier meso-American plant known as “chapalote.”
However, the most commonly held view now is that corn was domesticated from the wild teosinte plant that grew in the Balsas River Valley some 6,250 to 10,000 years ago. Scientists believed that the early inhabitants of Mexico worked over generations to gradually reduce the elements of the teosinte plant that were not conducive to its being grown in volume and to being eaten by man and animals. For example, the seeds of the teosinte are located on a spike which then breaks when the grain is at its ripest and which then scatter the seeds. From this, modern corn has evolved so that it cannot, according to the website ThoughtCo, quote, “reproduce on its own.” Also, the teosinte seeds, which were protected in a hard shell to prevent birds and animals digesting them when ingested, evolved into that thin transparent skin surrounding a kernel now found in modern day corn. I’m particularly glad of that evolution because otherwise, we’d probably be going to the dentist more often as we risk cracking our teeth when we bite onto a corn cob.
Through selective domestication, the early inhabitants of Mexico were able to create plants that were close to what we might now think of being corn. In a 2005 National Science Foundation article, the authors argue that of the 59,000 corn genes, at least
“1,200 were preferentially targeted for selection during its domestication.”
However, that is not to say that this was a short process. The first known archeological evidence of corn’s beginnings is found in the San Marcos Cave in Tehuacan, and the Gulia Naquitz cave in Oaxaca. These corn supposedly date back to about 5,500 years and 6,250 years, respectively. And not quite yet corn as we might know it today. In fact, in the same National Science Foundation article, the authors suggest that while it’s impossible to know exactly the length of time it took to domesticate corn, about 4,500 years ago, a plant recognizable as modern-day corn was growing in the Americas.
Now, once we begin to see maize or corn produced by humans in volume, the next question or questions are how did corn begin to spread across the Americas, and then the world. These are genuinely interesting questions and ones that take us on a familiar journey of the colonizer; with ingredients, plants, animals and the like being quote, “discovered,” in the colonized world; being brought back to Europe; and then being taken around the rest of the world in search of trade and other profitable growing venues. This is a process known as “The Columbian Exchange,” a phrase created by Professor Alfred Crosby and one we have talked about on many occasions on Eat My Globe in different episodes. We also have a terrific interview on this very subject with Professor Carla Pestana, the Chair of the Department of History at UCLA, in Season 6. So, do go and check that out.
Other questions also include how corn began to move through natural trade and through some human migration reasons throughout the Americas, long before the colonizers had ever looked West. The belief now is that corn traveled to the Southwest of what is now the United States around 3,200 – 4000 years ago, and that it reached the Eastern Coast of the US by about 2,100 years ago. It moved to places like Peru some 6,700 to 3000 years ago. It’s believed that the corn's dispersal was facilitated by hunter gatherers. It’s also argued that natives in these other countries may also have further domesticated the teosinte plants while the domestication process in Mexico was still ongoing.
There are two main ways that crops or technologies, spread across a region or between regions over time. The first way is with the large migration of groups from one area to another, who take with them their technologies and the crops that they grow, as well as the knowledge in how they are best grown. The second way is through trade, where smaller groups might trade their wares, wares that could include crops and pottery with another smaller group in the region without any major migration of groups. Because we don’t see any great migration of people from Mexico to these other places at this time, scientists think that corn moved through trade between hunter gatherer groups. Scientists think corn moved across the US through trade, until about the year 700, when it could be found in the Canadian Shield, an area that includes parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, as well as Ontario, Quebec, and the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.
As we see from the movement of maize from Mexico to the Southwestern United States and beyond, we also begin to see that in many regions, the recipients of corn began to alter the plant to suit their specific needs. According to the website ThoughtCo, for example, even before Columbus arrived in the New World, Peru already had over 35 different varieties of maize. And according to archeologists at the Smithsonian, the Pueblo people of the Southwest US only grew corn varieties that benefitted their society such as those that had roots that relied on ground water as opposed to rain water therefore making the corn drought resistant.
The exact movements of the production of corn or maize are hard to pin down and can change as new archeological discoveries are made. What we can know for certain though is that by the time the first colonists arrived from Europe, corn was available in many varieties and being used in many ways by the Native peoples they encountered.
Before we come back to the first colonists, let’s return to Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus and the impact of him bringing the corn back to Europe. As we mentioned before, Columbus and his crew, sponsored by the Spanish royalty on his voyages of exploration, encountered corn being used by the Taino people in what is now Cuba. He thought it was an interesting and tasty product, and along with so many of the other items he found during his travels, he brought it back on his return to Spain in 1493.
At first, corn was taken from Spain to the Vatican, and we begin to see maize appearing in frescos around 1517. By the later 1500s, we also see maize being grown in Germany in 1539, in the Alpine regions by 1570, and in Southwestern France by the 17th century. Which raises the question of how these very different areas of landscape and geography could not possibly all be sowing the same crop and that they either came to Europe from different parts of the colonized Americas and Caribbean, or that they were the result of hybridization of different varieties that were already available in Europe.
From Europe, corn began to be sent to other colonized countries where it had very different impacts. For example, in West Africa, both historians Alfred Crosby – the author of “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492” – and Philip Curtin – the author of the book, “The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census” – suggest that the success of corn being introduced to West Africa by the 17thcentury led to two major consequences. The first, it became a primary dietary source for the region during the rise of the slave trade, which consequently contributed to an increase in population density. The second, that it can be seen to have an upward impact on the number of potential slaves to be captured and sent in chains around the world.
Corn was first introduced in the islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome in West Africa by the Portuguese. Soon, corn appeared on the mainland. Initially, it was to supply Portugal’s own soldiers who were manning the forts in these relatively new colonies. From there, it went from not only being used by the Portuguese for their own purposes, but soon became a favorite of the mainland African farmers who saw the benefits of the higher yield, less labor in producing, and the short time needed to grow corn.
The Portuguese are also believed to introduce corn to India in the 16thor 17th century. Although there are those in India who also believe that before the, quote “discovery of trade routes by Vasco de Gama in 1498,” end quote, there may well have been some pre-Columbian trading between Indian kingdoms and territories in the Americas. In 2022 or 2023, corn was responsible for the production of over 32 million tons in India. However, that does not put it in the top of grains grown in India, let alone the world.
It is unsurprising that the biggest Asian producer of corn is China. Also, it is now the second biggest producer of corn in the world, after the United States. It is commonly believed that corn arrived in China through the Silk Road; trade routes via India, Burma and Yunnan; the maritime trade routes; or via the Philippines. However, again, some argue that because Chinese drawings of corn or references to it in Chinese poetry have appeared in pre-Columbian times, corn must have reached China another way. In any event, China now produces 277.2 million tons of corn per year.
Now, the majority of corn in China is reserved for domestic use, and for animal feed, primarily for pork, with 700 million pigs to feed each year. 30% of what’s left after animal feed is turned into alcohol, sweeteners and other chemicals.
From China, maize found its way to Korea and has been cultivated there since the 16th century.
And, the Portuguese – again – took corn to Japan around the same period. Although Japan did not begin to produce corn in any volume until two centuries later during the Meiji era – which lasted from 1868 to 1912 – when American corn was introduced to the Hokkaido area.
Now, there are many countries in the world that produce corn, with many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas being in that list. Brazil, for example, is a significant but distant 3rd spot, producing 125 million tons per annum. As I have mentioned China is in the second place at 277.2 million, and way out in front is the United States of America, which produces – listen to this – 348.7 million tons per annum.
Which is, I think, a good point for us to return to the United States and look at how corn was first encountered by the first colonists. How it was being used by the Native Americans and how it has become such a staple of the American diet.
As we have discussed before, corn in all its varieties had become a staple of the Native peoples in what is now the United States of America. Outside of its culinary usage, Native Americans used corn related materials in stuff like mattresses, woven containers, mats, and even toys, such as the corn husk doll. In culinary usage, there were plenty of examples of how it was used. Corn Pone, is one of my favorites. The term “pone” is, I am told, taken from the Algonquian word for “baked.” Corn is used in another of my favorite dishes, succotash, where it could be mixed with beans. Cornmeal was made by grinding the dried corn to create a flour that could be used in many, many ways.
The Native American groups also developed their own way of growing corn with other plants to improve the quality of production for them all. The “Three Sisters” technique developed to use the “sisters” – corn, beans and squash – in a way that each of them helped the others to grow. The corn stalks would provide a pole on which the beans could grow, the leaves from the corn plants would provide shade to protect the squash from potentially strong sunlight. The beans, in return, would provide nitrogen to the soil, which benefited the corn and squash, and the large leaves of the squash protected the soil and retained moisture, which all three plants needed. It was an ingenious method. I know, from a recent visit to visit the delightful Plimoth Patuxet, is still being used by the local Wampanoag peoples to this day. Kerri Helme, the Wampanoag Homesite Cultural Programs Manager at Plimoth Patuxet, also described and explained this fantastic technique on Season 3 of Eat My Globe. So, please, make sure you go out and check that episode. It’s a delightful one.
The first European colonial settlements in what is now the United States of America included Spain’s settlement in St. Augustine Florida in 1565, the British first settlement in Roanoke in North Carolina in 1585, and the Dutch settlements in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York in 1614. These colonists were painfully aware of the limitations of the provisions they could bring from their home countries. Initially, their relationships with the Native Americans was cordial and they learned many techniques of growing food, hunting and cooking that allowed them to survive the initial years. A lot of these dishes they learned to cook including corn, which was also dubbed by the colonists as “Guinny Wheat” and “Turkie Wheat.” Many of the dishes that we have mentioned so far, and which are still popular, still have their Native American names from these early encounters. We already mentioned “Corn Pone” and “Succotash.” But added to these you might find others such as “suppawn,” a thick porridge made of cornmeal and milk, boiled together, and “Samp,” the English shorthand for “Nasaump,” which our friends at Plimoth Patuxet describe as a
“Wampanoag dish that is made from dried corn, local berries, and nuts. It is boiled in water until it thickens, and is similar to a porridge or oatmeal.”
Another vital dish was known as “nokick” or “no-cake” which is
“Indian corn parched in the hot ashes, the ashes being sifted from it; it is afterward beaten to powder and put into a long leatherne bag trussed at their backe like knapsacke out of which they take three spoonsfull a day.”
Travelers mixed the nokick powder with water in the summer months and with snow in the winter months to give them energy.
In 1803, the President of what had then become the United States, Thomas Jefferson, concluded the “Louisiana Purchase” with the French Government. Alongside this addition to the United States, which just about doubled its size, came a huge increase in its population that went from 5 million to 23 million between 1800 and 1850. In 1823, President James Monroe declared a doctrine, now named after him, that European powers should not intervene in the United States’ expansion to the west. Added to this, there was also the pressure of religious zeal that came from the notion of “Manifest Destiny.” This is the notion, taken from a term coined in an 1845 editorial in a publication called, “The Democratic Review,” that God had decreed that the United States should expand across the whole continent, taking its notions of democracy and capitalism with it.
These changes had many consequences for the Native Americans, and for the settlers who decided that they were going to listen to the word of God and move west. For the Native Americans, we began to see the beginnings of “Indian Removal.” This was a plan that came to action under the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 19th century but had actually been suggested even earlier by one of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who put forward the claim that Native Americans were equal in quote, “body and mind,” but not culturally. It was then later expanded on by President James Monroe, who dismissed Jefferson’s idea of equality, and pushed the notion forward in government, before Andrew Jackson was able to progress this to law with the egregious “Indian Removal Act” of 1830, which was supposed to be a voluntary relinquishment of Native Americans lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi. I think, that it is one of the more shaming pieces of legislation ever passed through the American legislation. Jackson did try to pass this off as a piece of legislation that would have benefits for both parties and be welcomed by both by saying,
“If the offers made to the Indian were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.”
For anyone who has made even a rudimentary study of the history of the period, well, we all know how that turned out. Spoiler alert, not only did Native Americans lose their homelands but many – estimated to be about 100,000 people – died during their forced relocation.
Going back to the settlers who were moving west, they took with them the knowledge that they had learned over the last century on how to grow food in the places that they settled along the way.
One of which was, of course, corn, which had proved incredibly suitable for growing in this new land. Perhaps more so than some of the other crops, like wheat.
As Michael Pollan puts it in his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”
“Corn won over the wheat people because of its versatility, prized especially in new settlements far from civilization. This one plant supplied settlers with a ready-to-eat vegetable and a storable grain, a source of fiber and animal feed, heating fuel and an intoxicant. Corn could be eaten fresh off the cob (‘green’) within months after planting, or dried on the stalk in the fall, stored indefinitely, and ground into flour as needed. Mashed and fermented, corn could be brewed into beer or distilled into whiskey, for a time it was the only source of alcohol on the frontier.”
Added to this, Pollan talks of the non-culinary uses of corn, as well as the fact that corn was a perfect item to trade, as when dried it was almost indestructible and any surplus could be sold in the market. In some situations, he argues, that corn also acted as an alternative to money.
Which made it the perfect crop for those who moved West to take with them. As they moved West, settlers found that the land was perfect for growing corn. So much so that areas such as parts of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Eastern Nebraska and Eastern Kansas became so successful at growing corn – because of their excellent soil and perfect corn growing climate – that they are now known as America’s “Corn Belt.”
In addition to corn produced for human consumption, excess corn production led to the awareness that it was also the perfect grain on which to feed livestock.
During the period of the American Civil War, corn came to play an important role in the attempt to feed troops on both sides of the conflict. However, it might be fair to suggest that it was the Southern Confederate troops who depended on it most. A lot of the dishes we’ve talked about so far – hominy, cornbread, cornmeal, etc. – were all made for the soldiers. However, as the National Park Service in Manassas notes,
“The Confederates did not always have hardtack, because it was made from wheat flour, and wheat was not widely grown in most Confederate states, aside from Virginia and Georgia. The Confederates instead relied on two crops they grew to make their bread: corn and rice. In particular, they used corn to make something similar to hardtack that was known as ‘corn dodgers’ or ‘Johnny cakes.’ This was a mixture of cornmeal, salt, and water cooked until it was just as dry and hard as the hardtack.”
After the Civil War, and into the beginning of the 20th century, we begin to see some rapid developments in the corn plant itself and in the development of how corn is seeded, grown, harvested and dried.
In 1922, we see the first commercial production of “hybrid” corn. According to study.com, “hybrid” means,
“A hybrid is the offspring of a cross between parents from two different species or subspecies. A cross between a horse and a donkey results in a mule, which is a hybrid.”
The idea being to take the elements of the parents of an offspring to create the best elements of both parents in the offspring.
In plant terms, in general, and in corn terms, in particular, this meant that hybrid corn was according to our pals at Merriam Webster,
“a corn resulting from crossbreeding.”
That led to
“the grain of Indian corn developed by hybridizing two or more inbred strains.”
From which was derived
“the plant that is grown from the grain of hybrid corn and that conforms to a standard of desirable characteristics including increased size, yield, or disease resistance but whose own grain produces an inferior progeny.”
Hybrid corn allowed for more profits because the significantly increased volume produced using this corn, more than paid for the costs associated with creating the hybrid.
Which leads us almost to the current day where, in 2021, the US had an almost record production of corn at 15.1 billion bushels, wow, which is up 7% on 2020 figures. Plus, bushels per acre production also increased 5.6 bushels per acre to 177 bushels per acre.
Now, as I mentioned a number of times in this episode, not all of this corn – indeed, a minority of it – will find its way into food that is directly meant to be corn based or corn supported. Of the 90 million acres of land used to grow corn in the United States, the majority will be used to provide the energy ingredient in livestock feed. Much of the rest will be used in industrial products such as ethanol and industrial alcohol, in some of the snacks we love, and even into high fructose corn syrup. These will include candy bars, sweets, sodas, fast foods, sauces, ice creams, juices, jams, even bread and crackers.
All of which goes to show that corn is just as important, maybe even more so than it was to any of our predecessors. But, probably for reasons of profit than for enjoyment of the ingredient itself.
But, this is a podcast all about the celebration of the history of the world’s greatest ingredients and dishes, so I would love to finish on a more positive note and suggest that this episode will hopefully inspire you to go out and buy some really terrific heirloom corn. It could be sweet corn on the cob. It could be popping corn. It could be cornmeal. Whatever it is, I hope you try and make now some of those dishes that we talked about during the episode to remind ourselves just how important corn has been to the history of the food world and to connect ourselves with some of our ancestors to whom corn was everything.
Corn was everything to the Native Mexicans who began growing it some 7,000 + years ago. To the Native Americans who took corn across the Americas and across the United States. To the colonial explorers who took corn back to Europe. To the colonists of the 16th century who perhaps might not have survived without corn and the help of the Native Americans who supported them. To those who moved west with the zeal of Manifest Destiny. Corn has been everything throughout the 20th century to today where it has formed the backbone of so much of our diet.
And, so important to one particular person – and that would be me – he now has to go and make a skillet of bacon fat cornbread this very minute.
See you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions.”
We would also like thank Sybil Villanueva for all of her help both with the editing of this transcript and essential help with the research.
Publication Date: November 20, 2023