My good friend, Corn. How many ways can I praise you? where, even, to begin?
It’s hard to imagine a more eaten, more useful, more controversial grain. We love it on the cob, in breakfast cereals, luncheon tacos, in our soda drinks and bakery sweets, in adult beverages. Ground into flour, it’s one of the few grains we can cook without strengthening or flavor-enhancing additives. Corn’s history is deep, and its agricultural impact, troubling. Some claim it is toxic, others that it contains gluten (both false). I challenge anyone to honestly state they’ve never eaten it.
My thoughts of corn provoke a raft of childhood memories. Planting sweet corn. (My father preferred the mound, rather than the row, technique.) Weeding the damn corn hills. Harvesting the sweet tender ears and rushing them from garden to house for boiling, before the sugars changed to starches. (In those days, Golden Cross Bantam was the hybrid of choice. Unlike today’s sweet corns, its sugars were notoriously short-lived.) Riding my bicycle up the country road where we lived, to discover a dumped pile of fragrant corn mash, and dozens of very happy birds.
Corn was one of my earliest food obsessions. I recall convincing my father to plant several hills of popcorn, and a few of what we then called “Indian corn,” the multi-colored ears commonly used for decoration. The former I loved to pop, a skillet-shaking, holding-the-lid-tight task in those pre-microwave-oven years.
Winter holiday season meant popcorn balls. We’d make them with skillet-prepared syrup, rolling the too-hot puffs into fist-sized balls, then wrapping them in bright cellophane for Christmas treats. (They always smelled better than they tasted, alas.)
One autumn, after learning that the American Indians ate hard, rather than sweet, corn, I tried to emulate their traditions by pounding kernels of Indian corn between sandstone slabs. This required an impressive amount of labor and yielded far more stony grit than cornmeal. In fact there was no edible cornmeal whatsoever. How, I wondered, did the tribes do this?
It would be many decades until I learned the key to delicious and nutritious cornmeal: nixtamalization. And that is where I’d like truly begin.
Nixtamalization is the ancient process of cooking corn in an alkali broth. Believed to originate with the Aztec culture, nixtamalization in its earliest form involved the use of fire ashes. Mixed with water, wood ash produces an alkali that's nearly as strong as lye. Put a fistful in a clay pot, add water and corn kernels and simmer over the fire until the corn is puffed large and its outer layer is soft. Rub and rinse the corn and it’s ready for stone grinding. This too is an ancient method, using a mano y metate; the former a hand-held hard cylinder, the latter a scooped-out depression in solid rock. (The intrepid hiker can still find these in remote cliff dwellings in the American Southwest. If you do, please leave them exactly as they are.)
Who thought this all up? Not one person, surely. If it “Takes a village to raise a child” it must have taken an entire culture to invent and perfect so detailed a process.
It’s much easier to understand why it was done. One bite of a tortilla made from properly nixtamalized corn and you understand. The taste, compared to plain bland cooked corn, is astounding.
What’s not immediately obvious is the nutritional change wrought by nixtamalization. The strong alkali releases niacin, a crucial micronutrient. Skip the nixta and you have a gut-filing but nutritionally bereft meal. As European invaders found, to their lasting distress.
When the Euros landed on Meso-American shores they found much to delight their appetites. (In this case I’m not describing their unquenchable appetite for murder, which they ruthlessly wreaked on the Americas.) Corn figured prominently among the indigenous plants and the Euros were heartily impressed. Here was a new and different grain treat. But. Still. Why should it take so damned long to prepare into food? Stupid Indians. Why not just grind and bake?
Armed with corn seeds and attitude, the invaders brought the plant back to the home country, where it thrived. From there it was but a short jump to bakers’ kitchens, and then on to curious consumers. In some places corn grew so well and could be harvested so cheaply it became a dominant ingredient in baked goods and noodles. People ate it greedily. And soon developed pelegra.
Pelegra is a vitamin deficiency that’s almost always associated with the over-consumption of corn. Non-nixtamalized corn, that is. The “Stupid Indians” who spent so much time preparing their corn meal had been practicing a bit of extremely complex nutritional enhancement - not to say sophisticated organic chemistry. If the Euros hadn’t been so solipsistic, they’d’ve been dumbfounded by that alone.
(This is also a story I love to tell when someone’s ranting about the “evils” of processed food.)
Today nixtamalization does not require a wood fire or a clay pot or the ability to sit and stir for hours at a time. Nor does it require - as some cooks insist - politically correct heirloom corn. It’s one of the easiest foods you can prepare, with one key ingredient - “Mexican Lime” or “Calc” - available online, and the corn - well, everywhere.
Nixta corn is hard corn. Field corn. Deer corn. Indian corn. Blue corn and red corn and white corn. It all works. But my favorite, both for flavor and for price, is plain white popcorn. (OK, not always for price. I’ve been known to scavenge a recently-harvested field for partial cobs.)