Chapter One Corn The Essence of Life
Whether we call it corn, Indian corn, maize or zea mays, it is all the same thing. This plant, originally an undomesticated wild grass, was turned into a food that would dominate ancient American agriculture for thousands of years and would go on to exert its influence all over the world.
Because of the beauty of corn's color and form many Indigenous peoples of the Americas found time to develop around it a great culture of art, science, literature, and religion. The significance of corn to these cultures' rituals and creation narratives is a part of the story of corn. This story of America is essentially the story of corn and the Native cultures from all over the Americas that developed around it. Corn made cultural development possible by supporting dense concentrations of populations.
Scientists are still debating the actual date of the oldest corn, but evidence from the San Marcos Cave in the Tehuacan Valley of southern Puebla in Mexico suggests it was first cultivated 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. The domestication of maize was probably a gradual process, eventually taking place over a sizable portion of Mexico and Guatemala where we find the greatest number of cultivated maize varieties growing today. Corn is believed to have migrated in two directions, different strains adapting to the climate according to the direction it traveled. The migration routes have been referred to as the Northern Flint and Southern Dent pathways. The Northern Flint pathway took shape in the Rio Grande Valley in about 700 A.D., spreading northward on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. The Southern Dent pathway traveled further to the south into South America.
Hopi maize is adapted for deep planting in the deserts of the Southwest. Most maize fails to emerge from depths of more than four inches, but this maize is able to sprout from depths of more than eighteen inches, where desert soil retains its moisture. This variety did not require irrigation, making it ideal for cultivation in the dry, arid Southwest. As the young corn plants grew, the healthiest shoots pushed aside the weaker ones, producing plenty of thriving corn for harvest. "Dry-farming," as this method is called, is actively used today by the Hopi, Din (Navajo), and some tribes in the desert regions where irrigation is not possible.
There are five major groups of corn: dent, flint, flour, sweet, and pop. They differ in their contents of sugar and starch. Add to this the different colors of the corn plants and the kernels, the different length of time necessary to ripen a crop, and the varying resistance to drought, heat, insects, and diseases, and it becomes easy to imagine the number of varieties of maize.
In North America, maize was important not only to the Indigenous societies but also to the survival of the first Europeans that settled in the East. Had the Indians not shared their maize with the Mayflower Pilgrims, the Pilgrims would have undoubtedly starved during their first terrible winter at Plymouth.
Corn is, and has been for thousands of years, one of the most important foods in the Native American diet. Considered to be the essence of life, corn is sacred to the people. In fact, prayers are offered to corn. as Mother, at many ceremonial dances. The Tewa-speaking Pueblos speak of two corn mothers who were present before the emergence from a former life within this earth: a white corn mother and a blue corn mother. In other Pueblos and tribes, corn may be referred to as Maiden or Sister. The focus is slightly different in each instance, but the ideas of corn as mother, enabler, transformer, and healer are components of the same concept.
Throughout the Southwest, there is a recognition that it is necessary to sing the corn to maturity, to sing to it in order for it to grow healthy and productive. The people ask for blessings from the corn, and ask for the corn to come up strong so that it might feed the people and no one will go hungry.
For Din people, corn is revered as a food and because it yields pollen, which is important in their healing rituals. For the Din more than any other peoples, corn is a healer.
For the Tohono O'odham, or "Desert People," and the Akimiel O'odham, or "Salt River People," corn is revered and they know it as mother. Again, there were and are songs for all stages of the corn's growth, as well as for the beans and the squash.
Several different varieties and colors of corn, including blue, white, red, yellow, and speckled, are used by Native Americans today. Blue corn, which varies in color from pale blue to almost black, is One of the most important crops. It is used primarily in making baked goods, stews, stuffing, dumplings, and beverages. Recent studies indicate that this variety of corn may have more nutritional value than other types and therefore may help to prevent malnutrition among low-income Indian groups. White corn is a major crop on many reservations and Pueblos. It is used in prayer offerings and for making hominy and cornmeal flour, which is used in many traditional recipes. Red corn, ranging in color from light red to deep maroon, is used for baked goods, stews, and traditionally for dye. It is also used to make parched corn, that is, corn that has been roasted so that the kernels are crunchy. Yellow corn is used in stew and is ground into flour or meal for baking. It is often substituted for white corn in cooking because of its greater availability. Sweet corn, best known as corn on the cob, is also grown throughout the Southwest. Speckled corn, which is a combination of all the colors of corn, is used for all kinds of cooking.
In the past, in order to endure the long, harsh winters, Native Americans dried much of their corn just after harvest, preparing enough to last through two cropless winters. Today, it is common during harvest season to see corn hanging in strands outside adobe houses in the Southwest. There are two methods of drying corn. One is simply to string fresh corn cobs, in their husks, on long yucca threads and hang them outside for several weeks. The other is to bake the cobs before drying, usually in an earthen oven, a process that enhances the corn's flavor.
Many families still use ancient grinding stones for ceremonial corn. Young women still grind corn to the songs of their elders. The Hopi people feel that these stones will never become museum pieces because the process of grinding corn is too sacred. There are many traditional dishes prepared today using corn. Someviki (from a Hopi word meaning "tied bread") is prepared from blue corn and placed in dried husks and boiled. Piki, a paper-thin cornbread also made from blue or white corn, is prepared on a stone that is passed down from mother to daughter.
A corn roast is also an important Social occasion. In a large earthen pit lined with stones a fire is built. After the fire has been fed for several hours, when the sand around the opening of the pit has changed color, corn and cornmeal are pushed into the pit. This is followed by a layer of green corn husks to keep the corn at the bottom from scorching, and to create steam. Up to several hundred ears are placed in the pit, with another layer of corn husks placed at the top to protect the corn. The hole is covered and the corn is roasted until the next morning.
At sunrise the next morning, people gather around the pit and the first ears are eaten in honor of the first sun rays. The rest of the corn is peeled and placed on tarps to dry. Steam still rising from the earthen pit, a prayer to the spirits is offered, usually by the men, and the spirits are asked to join the people in this celebration of the roasted corn. The corn is then transported back to the homes in the village where women string it on yucca strands and place it in the sun to dry.
The miracle of corn is that it grows in the Southwestern desert at all, particularly on some of the arid mesas. But with a history going back thousands of years, it has enabled the Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest to sustain life and to evolve as individual cultures. Corn is Mother. The corn plant itself represents the life cycle of the human being, from the planting of a seed to the growing process to death. The cornstalk dries in the fields, leaving behind new kernels, new seeds of life for future generations to continue the cycle. Corn in the Southwest is the essence of life.
Almost every tribe and Pueblo throughout the Southwest uses hominy as a base for many of their dishes. Made from dried corn in a variety of colors-white, yellow, blue, and red-hominy can be canned or dried and stored for winter use. Once cooked and the hulls removed, it can also be ground into a meal and used for corn tortillas or tamales, or-most commonly-added to a variety of stews. When sold in certain regions of the Southwest, hominy-canned or dried-is also referred to as posole. Throughout New Mexico, posole can also refer to a cooked dish (page 31). This is the traditional method of making hominy. It was taught to me by Juanita Tiger Kavena from First Mesa in Arizona.
2 3/4 cups dried corn kernels, or 1 (1.5-pound) package frozen corn kernels 10 cups water 1 cup culinary ash (see note), or 2 tablespoons baking soda
Soak the dried corn overnight in a bowl filled with the water.
The following day, place the corn and water into an enameled pot. (Culinary ash reacts with metal, so the hominy must be processed in an enameled pot.) Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
When the water begins to boil, stir in the culinary ash. At this point, the ash will intensify the color of the kernels.
Cover and decrease the heat. Simmer over low heat for about 5 1/2 hours, until the hulls are loose and the corn returns to its original color. Stir occasionally, replenishing with enough water to cover the corn to keep it from drying out and burning on the bottom.
Under cold running water, rub the corn kernels between your fingers to remove the hulls. Discard the hulls. Drain the corn in a colander.
To dry hominy in the traditional manner, spread the cooked and hulled corn on an open-weave basket or screen and place it in full sun, turning the kernels every few hours until completely dry. This method of drying is an ancient practice and is still used among certain tribes today. Alternatively, a more modern method is to place the kernels on a sheet pan in a gas oven with the pilot light on, or in an electric oven on the lowest setting, turning every few hours until dry. To check if the corn is ready, break open a kernel: if there is any moisture inside, keep drying. Once properly dried, hominy will keep for a full year without spoiling. Makes 5 cups cooked or 3 cups dried hominy
NOTE: Culinary ash is made from burning the wood of certain trees until there is only ash left. Many types of trees and bushes found throughout the Southwest can be used; the Din (Navajo) use juniper primarily, and the Hopi use green plants such as suwvi or chamisa bushes. The green twigs, when burned, produce an ash with a high mineral content. When used in cooking, it increases the food's nutritional value.
When culinary ash is mixed with boiling water and corn, the alkali in the ash reacts with the corn and changes it to a more intense color. After the water has cooled, the corn changes back to something close to its original color.
If you are in an area where culinary ash is difficult to obtain (see Source Guide, page 201), baking soda can be used as a substitute, although it doesn't have the high nutritional value of ash.
Posole is a simple, rustic stew common throughout the pueblos of New Mexico. Made from dried hominy corn, ham hocks, spices, and dried red chile, the stew is usually cooked in large quantities. It is customarily, eaten on each Pueblo's Feast Day, when the Pueblo's Patron Saint is celebrated, and on New Year's Day, when a hearty meal for cold weather is welcome. The stew is traditionally served with a variety of condiments. It tastes especially good with Red Chile Sauce (page 64), freshly roasted diced green chiles (page 61), chile pequn (a small spicy dried chile), and any of the Indian breads, my favorite being the Adobe Bread (page 68).
1 1/2 cups dried Indian Hominy (page 29) 6 quarts water 2 ham hocks (approximately 2 lbs.) 2 dried red New Mexico chiles, seeded, stemmed, and torn into 6 pieces 1 small onion, chopped 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped (or dried Mexican oregano) 1 teaspoon azafrn (Native American saffron; see note, page 125)
Soak the hominy overnight in 1 quart of water.
The following day, drain and discard the water. Place the hominy in a large pot filled with the remaining 5 quarts of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease heat and simmer for about 4 hours, until the kernels burst and are puffy and tender. (White corn tends to puff the most.)
Add more water, if necessary, to cover the kernels. Add the ham hocks, red chiles, onion, and garlic, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours, until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. Add the oregano and azafrn and cook for another 15 minutes.
Remove the meat from the bones and discard the bones. Return the meat to the pot. If you are eating this as a stew by itself you may want to add a little more water. Return to the stove and serve hot.
Makes 3 cups; serves 6
Tortillas have been made by Native peoples in the Southwest and throughout Mexico for centuries. Making tortillas is considered by some to be an art form in itself. For the novice, it can be time-consuming and a bit difficult, but fresh, warm tortillas make the process worthwhile. Corn masa mixes are available commercially now in supermarkets, which makes the process easier. Tortillas will keep well in the refrigerator for about 5 days when covered in plastic. To reheat, simply warm on an ungreased griddle or open flame.
Blue Cornmeal Tortillas
2 cups very finely ground blue cornmeal 1 cup flour 2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons baking powder 4 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water or milk Cilantro leaves or other fresh herb (optional)
Mix the blue cornmeal, flour, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl. With your hands, work in the lard and 1 cup water or milk until completely mixed and pliable.