As mentioned before in this series of articles, corn (or maize) was first domesticated in Mexico about 7,000 years ago. This domestication transformed early societies of Mesoamerica. Originally nomadic and largely hunter-gatherers, they were able to establish sedentary agricultural villages. This allowed them to develop into entities of great political, social and cultural complexity.
The adaptation of these societies in relation to corn was not limited to its cultivation. Techniques and instruments were developed in order to store and process it. Some examples of this are the metate (mortars or grinding stones usually made from lava rock), an efficient tool used in most Mexican households until relatively recent times; ceramic pots, usually clay, that were essential in the evolution of culinary practices; and the comales, griddles used to cook and reheat tortillas and other maize dishes.
Maize, however, was part of those civilizations in a more profound way. It became a central part of their religion, culture and society. The Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, tells the tale of the creation of man. The Maker created Earth and the mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, animals and birds that populated it. However, he also wanted to create beings in his likeness. He created a human using dirt, but it didn’t look right. Dry, it crumbled and wet, it softened. It only spoke nonsense and it couldn’t reproduce. So the Maker tried again using wood. The results again were unsatisfactory. The Maker then had a better idea, the story continues:
The Maker sat and contemplated the ears of corn, the kernels of the ears. The Maker thought, “What come from this nourishing life will be my people,” and the Maker ground the corn, ground the corn and formed Man and Woman. On the first day, when Man and Woman, formed from corn, awakened, they rose up praising the Maker’s name and giving thanks for their lives. They bore children and praised the Maker as they planted corn and tended the crop. They were made in the Maker’s image, born from corn. The Maker and his people rejoiced in one another.”
Picture by arosadocel
Maize was important in the religion of all Mesoamerican cultures, from the Olmec, the oldest known complex civilization in Mexico (around 1200 B.C.), to the Mexica (Aztec), Mesoamerica’s largest empire until the arrival of the Spanish. Life was closely tied to the life cycle of corn. In the cosmovision of the peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico the different stages of the development of the grain (from sowing to harvest) was similar, in the mythic sense, to the development of their societies.
The interdependence that existed between man and maize shaped this view of the world. Maize couldn’t exist and reproduce without man’s intervention, and maize was their most important crop, making it vital for their economy and gastronomy. Its cultivation dictated their calendars, from festivities to wars.
Such was the importance of maize for those civilizations that many of the rituals, beliefs and, most importantly, gastronomy related to it survived the Spanish conquista. Modern Mexican cuisine is the perfect representation of the amalgam created when the Old and New worlds collided. Our most important crop is still maize. We eat pre-Hispanic maize dishes every day with ingredients that were brought to the Americas with the Spanish. Tamales now have lard that makes them fluffy and of lighter consistency. Tlacoyos are filled with cheese and topped with onion and cilantro and tortillas are used for tacos filled with chicken, pork and beef. In the same way, rituals where maize was very important were “Christianized”, dia de la candelaria and día de muertos for example, but the essence of the original ritual remains untouched.
In pre-Hispanic times, as well as among contemporary indigenous peoples, there are strict rules on the adequate ways to treat maize in the different stages of its reproductive cycle. If those rules are not observed, consequences are grave: the spirit of maize will leave and people will become impoverished and will suffer from hunger.
In a couple of days, I’ll write about nixtamalization, the process to cook dry maize for the preparation of tortillas and other maize-based dishes. This process has been used in Mexico for thousands of years and the corn masa (dough) that comes from it has one of the highest nutritional values of any food. It made tortillas a culinary engineering marvel.
Picture by Rene Ortega