- Historic Sites
The Conundrum Of Corn
It’s our most important, profitable, and adaptable crop—the true American staple. But where did it come from?
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
In the mundane world, corn came late to the agricultural Iage. By 8000 B.C., men in southwest Asia had stopped relying on collecting wild grain for food and were cultivating it. By 6000 B.C., the practice had reached Western Europe and, at about the same time, it had already begun in America, where Indians raised chili peppers, avocado, squash, beans, and corn. Domestication came everywhere through the same accident. Edible seeds of wild plants, dropped around encampments, landed on heaps of garbage and offal. In this richer soil, plants grew bigger and were handier to harvest. This led to the purposeful sowing of seed, to cultivation, and finally to the saving and selection of seed from the best plants.
By the time the white man came, corn was the main cultivated crop in all the Americas. In his journal entry for November 5, 1492, Columbus described “a prolific sort of grain from which a very fine flour is made … a bread of exquisite taste.” It was “a grain like millet which they called maize,” a landing party reported, “very well tasted when boiled, roasted or made into porridge.”
Thus the Old World first met the plant on which the New World built its wonderful civilizations—the temples of the Mayas, the gold and silver work of the Incas, the enchanting Aztec city of the lakes. To the Indians it was worshiped as the stuff made by gods, the stuff of which man himself was made, his source and sustenance. It was so cheap to produce—a single plant gave a man enough food for a day—that it could support generally stable populations, leaving people with free time to create monumental wealth for their priests and chieftains.
In much of middle America, farming procedures were simple. In a spot near a village, farmers would cut down trees and, leaving them to termites and decay, plant corn between the stumps in scuffed-up hills. The ground was rich in decayed vegetation and, having been shaded by trees, was free of weeds. The corn grew robustly. In three or four years, with the soil depleted and other plants moving in, the plot would be abandoned for another.
In Mexico, corn grew so tall along the trails that Cortez’s cavalry had trouble pushing through to get to Montezuma’s capital. They found the city streets lined with booths that sold flat corn cakes, and everywhere they heard the noise of the cakes being slapped and thrown on stone hearths. The plain people ate them filled with beans or pimientos, the conquistadors noted, while the rich filled them with meat, feasting also on winged ants and the caviar-like eggs of water flies. The conquerors also learned a dish called tlacatlaolli made of the flesh of a man, sacrificed in a harvest ritual, cooked in a stew with the first-picked corn.
To the northwest, Coronado, searching for those golden cities, met corn all along the way growing in arid spots where the Indians build little basins to catch the sparse rain. Far to the north, Cartier and Champlain found corn that ripened well despite the short summer.
Columbus brought corn back from his first or second voyage, and by the mid-1500’s it was growing not just in Spain but in Bulgaria and Turkey. Slavers carried corn to Africa to feed their cargo and it caught on there, proving more productive than native grain. Magellan’s men dropped Mexican seed off in the Philippines and Asia.
Spaniards first called it panizo, a general term for grain, but soon adopted the name maize. Other Europeans called it Indian corn, Indian barley, Guinea wheat, or when they wanted to disparage it, Turkish corn or Welsh corn—anything from Turkey or Wales was considered coarse and uncivilized. The tireless classifier Linnaeus, who named or renamed almost everything in nature, called it Zea mays, zea meaning “cereal” and having some remote connotation of “life.” The term corn, which in the Bible meant any grain, eventually took over as the popular name.
The English in America had to be taught the virtues of corn. Thomas Hariot, who came to Virginia in 1585, described it as “a graine of marvellous great increase.” A pound of seed, he said, produced three or four hundred pounds of food. The settlers at Jamestown did not appreciate this local marvel. They insisted on planting wheat, and many starved for their stubbornness. Captain John Smith had to spend a good deal of time badgering the Indians for corn. It was on a corn-buying trip that he claimed to have been saved by the first all-American heroine, Pocahontas. Her father, Powhatan, bargained hard after pardoning Smith. “A subtle savage,” Smith called him and, for a boatload of corn, had to give the chieftain “a grindstone, some guns, a cock and a hen, together with much copper and beads and some men to build him an English style house.”