Corn – Gift of the Gods
Traveling through Central America, it’s obvious what an important part corn has played in the diet here, both in the past and present. From the ever-present handmade tortillas to the delicious sweet or savory tamales, corn plays a part in nearly every meal. This staple food, grown and worshiped for at least a thousand years was completely unique to the Americas and now represents one of the most important crops worldwide.
Children of the Corn
Many ancient civilizations, including the Mayans and Aztecs, depended upon corn as their primary source of nutrition. Their ability to expertly cultivate the crop allowed these early people to flourish, building large empires by trading excess inventory. As legend tells, Mayans considered themselves “children of the corn”, created by the blood of gods mixed with corn flour. Each kernel was considered sacred, representing the full circle of life, and corn played an important part in offerings and other religious ceremonies.
Columbus and the New World’s Food
In addition to accidentally discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus also introduced the rest of the world to corn. Maiz, the same word used by the native Tainos Columbus first met, was brought back to Europe by him and other early explorers. Later, sailors carried corn on expeditions to other parts of the world, where it was quickly adopted and cultivated locally. It is now found almost everywhere in the world, and is an important part of many cuisines.
Corn in Latin America
During my first two months traveling in Mexico and Guatemala, I’ve been very lucky to try a number of common and not-so-common corn dishes. From sweet corn ice cream in the Yucatan, to an interesting corn fungus in Central Mexico, to fresh corn on the cob available on almost every street corner, I’ve seen (and tasted) some of the many delicious ways corn is used in Latin American cooking.
One of my favorites is a sweet, soupy warm beverage called atole, made from corn hominy flour, unrefined sugar, and various spices. It is a wonderful and comforting way to start the day or ease an upset stomach. In Guatemala, I was told it’s a common food fed to children to keep them growing and healthy.
Corn in the Future
While corn is still a staple food in Latin America, worldwide it is now also overwhelmingly used for livestock, poultry, and fish feed. In addition, corn is increasingly being used to create ethanol which is added to petroleum as a biofuel. In the US, corn grown to produce starches used for corn syrup sweeteners now accounts for roughly three times that grown for other human consumption.
What’s your favorite corn dish?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through Central America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online at www.aroundthisworld.com
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