Maize (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Maize as a Food (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
The evolution, dispersal, and consumption of maize span the better part of the past eight thousand years of human cultural development. Until European exploration in the Americas began in 1492, maize was a New World domesticate with an exclusively American distribution and consumption. After 1492, maize rapidly diffused throughout the Old World of Europe by way of ships returning from the New World. In fact, by 1498 cultivation of maize had begun in Seville, Spain. With its subsequent adoption in Africa for the purpose of feeding the growing numbers of African slaves destined for southwest Asia and the Americas, consumers throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia began to use maize as food and as fodder. According to Sophie D. Coe's review of America's first cuisines, maize constitutes the third most important food crop in the world, following on the heels of wheat and rice (p. 10). It is no accident, therefore, that maize constitutes a fundamental ingredient in many of the world's cuisines, ranging from Mexican enchiladas and Chinese baby-corn, to African-American grits, corn flakes, popcorn, Italian polenta or gruel, corn meal, maize-based alcoholic beverages (such as whiskey and bourbon), mayonnaise, and corn oil. Thus, maize has more than demonstrated its cross-cultural adaptability, gastronomic significance, and culinary versatility.
Maize Preparation and Consumption
The preparation of maize into food and beverages subsumes a world of food and beverage variations. Maizebased foods and beverages in Mesoamericahe place where maize originatedre many and diverse, and many of these are quite old. In Mexico alone, food and beverage varieties range from those by-products of maize that derive from the food process known as nixtamalización (or nixtamalization) to the fermentation of processed maize into alcoholic beverages and the creation of a very broad variety of foods. The oldest and most enduring method for processing cereal grains is one that originated in ancient Mesoamerica long before the Common Era.
In order to produce any one or more of the aforementioned maize-based foods or beverages, maize must be reduced to a paste or flour. The resulting by-product was known to the Mexica-Aztecs as nixtamal, and the process for rendering the maize kernels into a paste has since come to be known as nixtamalización. According to Sebastián Verdi, nixtamalización entails the fundamental process of rendering maize kernels into a paste that is treated with lime and heat in order to incorporate calcium and digestible iron into the masa, or maize dough. Ultimately, nixtamalización enhances the nutrient content of tortillas and related maize food by-products in such a way that maize is rendered superior in nutrient value to other grain-based foods such as white bread (p. 9).
In their study of the physiochemical, structural, and textural properties of tortillas and the nixtamal process, G. Arámbula-Villa and colleagues provide a detailed overview of the distinctions inherent in the methods and mechanics of the nixtamalización process. In comparing the efficacy and mechanics of traditional methods of dry-masa flour production versus modern methods of instant-masa flour production, these researchers present two detailed diagrams (p. 246). The traditional dry-masa production method entails several distinct steps, including cooking, steeping, nixtamalización, washing, nixtamal, milling with a hammer mill, drying, re-milling with the hammer mill, classification, and product collection. The modern production of instant masa entails dry milling, the mixing of water and lime with ground maize, extrusion or nixtamalización, fresh masa, drying, milling with a hammer mill, and product collection.
Nixtamalización often involves the use of a lime or alkaline bath or pre-soak that results in the softening and "shelling" of maize kernels. Once softened, the maize kernels are rendered or ground by way of basalt-stone grinding technologies, such as the ancient metate grinding slab or the modern automated molinos, or maize grinding mills, that pulverize maize for preparation into such by-products as masa or maize dough. Masa is used predominantly in the production of the pancake-like maize cakes or flat breads known as tortillas. Masa is also used in the production of a broad variety of foods and beverages, including the ever-popular corn-husk encased Mexican tamale, totopos, or tostaditas. Masa is also used in the Mexica-Aztec ground maize drink or gruel known as atolli
Maize Nutritional Composition
Scientists from several disciplines have studied the tortilla and its counterpart the tamale as examples of the nutritional value or mineral composition of processed maize products. In one such study conducted in 1988 and 1989, nutritional scientist Charles Weber and colleagues studied commercially produced tortillas and tamales from food chain stores. The tamales in this study included both green corn and stuffed beef and pork varieties. The researchers contrasted those tortillas and tamales with others produced in neighborhood factories or outlets and homes in the Mexican-American barrio communities of Tucson, Arizona. Thus, the results of these studies provided one basis for understanding the nutritive values of processed maize as represented by both commercial and domestic by-products. The study demonstrated that there was little variation in the size, composition, and mineral content in the commercially milled tortillas obtained from different commercial outlets.
The findings also demonstrated that the average size and weight of the maize or corn tortilla were 5.7 inches and 0.71 ounces, respectively. Average moisture content was 42.9 percent; protein content was 5.9 percent; lipid values were 2.3 percent; and acid detergent fiber and ash values were 1.8 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. Carbohydrate content averaged 49 percent, while energy values averaged 240 kcal/100 grams (pp. 32627). In contrast, tamales averaged 4 ounces in weight; moisture content averaged 59 percent; protein values averaged 5.4 percent; and lipid concentrations varied considerably but averaged 11 percent. This latter variation was thought to be the result of the wide variety of recipes used to produce tamales, and the variable use of fat sources such as lard versus hydrogenated vegetable oil. Also, it should be noted that whereas beef tamales averaged 4.2 ounces in weight, green corn tamales averaged 3.5 ounces in weight (pp. 33031). Finally, in regard to mineral content, Charles Weber and his colleagues found that maize or corn tortillas contain calcium, phosphorous, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium in variable amounts. Their study also noted that the calcium content of tortillas produced from lime-processed nixtamal was ten to twenty times higher than that of the original grain source (pp. 33132). These studies demonstrate that the dry milling and lime processing of maize at the most fundamental level have a profound effect on the inherent nutritive values of maize.
Pellagra and the Indian Triad
Because of the inherent nutritional values and mineral composition of maize grain, the lime processing of nixtamal and the evolution of the so-called "Indian triad" or "Mesoamerican triumvirate" were critical innovations that were directly attributable to the ancient Native Americans who nurtured maize through much of its evolutionary history. The triad or triumvirate in this instance refers to the American Indian horticultural heritage and/or tendency to cultivate maize, beans, and squash together in the same agricultural plots and, subsequently, to mix these ingredients into their culinary repertoire in a nutritionally balanced and sophisticated way. The combination of maize with both beans and squash is culturally and biologically critical in that the nutritional value of maize is significantly enhanced by the addition of these two fundamental foods. While maize lacks the amino acid niacin, common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are a significant source of amino acids, including niacin, tryptophan, and lysine. In her account of the nixtamalización or lime processing of maize developed in ancient Native America, Betty Fussell documents the means by which this process transforms maize's inherent protein structures (mainly albumins, globulins, glutelin, and zein) into the metabolically and nutritionally critical amino acids niacin, tryptophan, and lysine (pp. 20304).
The maize-dominant diets of some European, Egyptian, and other African peoples at the end of the nineteenth century lacked the aforementioned essential amino acids. This lack resulted in the spread of pellagra in epidemic proportions. Kwashiorkor severe form of malnutrition identified with infants and children dependent on high-carbohydrate and low-protein dietslso appeared among African and other peoples whose diets were maize-dominant. In her book on the culture and agriculture of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans, Sylvia Johnson notes that those afflicted with pellagra suffered skin rashes, dizziness, sore muscles, and in the worse-case scenario, insanity and death (pp. 245). According to Betty Fussell, to Europeans pellagra was widely known as "corn sickness" until it was renamed pellagra by an Italian in 1771 (p. 202). Even so, the specific causes of pellagra remained a mystery until after 1915, when the U.S. National Institute of Health commissioned a pellagra investigation headed by Dr. Joseph Goldberger, whose findings ultimately led to the effective treatment of the disease in the United States by the 1930s. These deficiencies and the epidemics with which they were associated might have been averted with the adoption of the "Indian triad" and the alkaline or lime processing of maize into nixtamal. According to Betty Fussell, this variety of maize processing can be documented to as early as 100 B.C.E. through the discovery of lime-soaking pots at the ancient site of Teotihuacan. She concludes that such discoveries have led many to believe that "corn is the oldest chemically processed grain in the world" (p. 176).
The Primordial Maize Tortilla
The maize flat breads or tortillas of Mexico are ancient and ubiquitous in the Americas. These breads are a fundamental staple of Mexican and other Latin American cuisine and have inspired the creation of a wealth of pre-Columbian or indigenous American foods, including enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, sopes, flautas, chilaquiles, and sopa de tortilla. The principal distinctions in these foods evolve from the treatment of the tortilla. In these Mexican food examples, tortillas are rolled, folded, flattened, thickened, and or fried. In the case of chilaquiles and sopa de tortilla, old, hardened, or otherwise stale tortillas are broken up or cut into strips and used in the preparation of casseroles and soups. In most of the aforementioned examples, the tortilla serves as the container, packet, or flat bread into or upon which varying types and quantities of meats and vegetables are placed. Alternately, the tortilla becomes but one additional, albeit important, ingredient in the preparation of casseroles and soups. Sophie D. Coe acknowledges that late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth-century Mexica-Aztec peoples of the Valley of Mexico
In addition to its status as the premier Mexican foodstuff, the tortilla is also part of indigenous and Catholic religious traditions and rituals in Mesoamerica and beyond. Aside from their status as the gastronomic and culinary archetype of maize-based foods, tortillas also serve a practical need in their role as edible utensils (spoons or spatulas) used for scooping up beans, rice, and meats served in Mexican cuisine. In fact, legend has it that Motecuhzoma Ilhuicaminahe illustrious penultimate emperor of the Mexica Aztecever used the same eating utensils more than once. This was due in large part to the fact that the emperor used tortillas in the same way that the Spanish used spoons and other utensils in the Old World. In many areas outside of Mexico (including the southwestern United States) tortillas have taken on a culinary predominance: they are regularly substituted for breads and other carbohydrates. This phenomenon was unheard of in colonial times. For example, in New Spain or Spanish colonial Mexico (c. 1521821), those who believed maize to be an inferior food fit only for the feeding of swine often substituted wheat for maize in the production of tortillas. From that point forward, wheat or flour tortillas took on a status as the flat bread food of choice for Spanish colonials in Mexico, whereas tortillas prepared from maize continued to be perceived as the primary foodstuff of Mexican Indians and the poor. Ironically, what were once called totopos or tostaditas in Mexico are today called "corn chips," such as Doritos, Fritos, and nachos, which are a widely consumed snack food in the United States and elsewhere.
Other Traditional Maize Foods
Once maize was introduced into the Old World of Europe, foods containing maize as a main ingredient were created for a variety of distinctive dishes and regional palettes across that vast cultural region. Italians adopted maize into a dish today known as polenta, which consists of a finely ground maize mixed with water in order to produce a porridge or mush. Sylvia Johnson describes polenta as a maize mush cooked in a pot, poured onto a wooden board, and allowed to cool for a few minutes until ready to consume. Eventually, polenta was mixed with other ingredients typical of Italian cuisine including grated cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and peppers, or it was served with pasta. When mixed with sugar or honey, polenta took on one other food use: as breakfast porridge (p. 21). In Rumania, mamaliga is prepared from sweet cornmeal and consists of a food akin to polenta that is sometimes referred to as "cornmeal mush." Cornmeal remains a primary staple of Rumanians and Hungarians alike, with puliszka being the staple food of Hungarians. Puliszka is prepared in much the same way as either polenta or mamaliga; however, it is often topped with feta cheese, butter, and other ingredients lightly blended into the cornmeal mush before the meal has been thoroughly cooked. Also popular in Romania and Hungary is malderash, which consists of maize cakes seasoned with cumin and coriander.
African Maize Cuisine
In the sixteenth century, maize rapidly diffused across the African continent as a result of the slave trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, a maize meal called posho was among the most popular foods of eastern Africa. Sylvia Johnson notes that the primary African use of maize as a food is in mush or porridge. Africans grind and boil maize in water in much the same way Europeans and Americans have done for many years (pp. 23637). Maize porridge is known as kpekple in Ghana and bidia in Zaire. In Zimbabwe, people consume sadza, whereas East Africans eat posho or ugali. Zulu-speaking people consume putu as a primary source of nutrition. One African dish called coo-coo contains maize mush with okra, an African vegetable that slaves introduced in the Caribbean as fungi (pp. 223). In Nigeria, maize is boiled and roasted in different forms. For example, adalu consists of maize kernels or cornmeal boiled with beans, while ogi and tuwo consist of ground and boiled maize flour. Ogi is a breakfast dish prepared from maize flour that is boiled until it attains a smooth consistency. Tuwo also consists of maize flour that is boiled until it acquires a thick consistency. Nigerians generally consume tuwo with soup dishes. Similarly, kokoro is a Nigerian snack food comprised of ground maize dough rolled together with other ingredients and then fried in vegetable oil. Finally, aadun consists of a cooked or baked snack prepared from ground maize, red pepper, and oil. Invariably, many of those maize foods developed in Africa found their way back to the New World by way of the Caribbean and have lasted in the African-American culinary tradition. Grits can also be added to this list of African maize culinary concoctions. Grits consists of coarsely ground dried corn and is used as an ingredient in any number of other maize-based recipes, ranging from cracklin' cornbread to corn chowder, fried catfish basted with yellow corn meal, and a host of cornbread stuffings and hominy-based recipes.
Maize as a Fermented Beverage
According to a Food and Agriculture Organization report, the fermentation of maize by indigenous Latin American peoples provides the basis for virtually all indigenously produced alcoholic beverages in the Americas. Chicha de jora, or maize beer, is perhaps the most important and popular beverage produced in South America, including the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In fact, according to Betty Fussell, chicha was the critically important nutritional counterpart to the nixtamalización and ash-and lime-processed maize products used in other areas of the Americas (but unknown in Andean South America) in pre-Columbian times (p. 249). Other alcoholic beverages fermented from maize dough or flour include abati, consumed primarily in Paraguay and Argentina; and chica, charagua, ostoche, sendechó, zambumbia, and tesgüino, all consumed in Mexico. Sora, or maize beer, is also consumed primarily in Peru. For Latin America, maize-based non-alcoholic beverages and porridges include acupe from Venezuela; cachiri and fubá from Brazil; champuz and napú from Colombia and Peru; and pozol, sendechó, and atole from Mexico. When producing pozol, a mixture of water and lime is mixed in a suitable container and maize is added to the aforementioned mixture and boiled. Once nixtamal has been prepared, the by-product is washed and ground into maize dough, which is then shaped into small balls and covered with banana leaves. The fermentation of nixtamal is necessary for the production of pozol, which ultimately requires one to fourteen days to produce.Whereas maize is a primary staple of American Indian maize-beer production, in North America its use is best known from the Prohibition-period exploits of "bootleggers" who produced moonshine or corn liquor, or whiskey, and the like. Both Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey variously make use of no less than 51 percent cornmeal mash. The primary distinction between mash and malt liquors is that mash is derived from cornmeal
|Fermented maize-based cereal products eaten in Latin America|
|Abati||Alcoholic beverage produced from maize||Paraguay, Argentina|
|Acupe||Beverage produced from germinated maize that has been both fermented and sweetened||Venezuela|
|Agua-agria||Non-alcoholic beverage produced from ground maize and water.||Mexico|
|Atole||Non-alcoholic porridge produced from maize dough||Mexico|
|Atole agrio||Non-alcoholic porridge produced from black maize dough fermented 4 to 5 days||Mexico|
|Cachiri||Fermented beverage produced in clay pots from maize and manihot or fruit||Brazil|
|Champuz||Fermented beverage produced from maize or rice||Colombia, Peru|
|Charagua||Alcoholic beverage produced from pulque syrup, chili, and toasted maize leaves heated slowly and fermented.||Mexico|
|Chica||Alcoholic beverage produced from pineapple, barley steep liquor, and black maize dough. Beverage is fermented for 4 days, after which brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves are added||Mexico|
|Fubá||Germinated maize grains fermented in water||Brazil|
|Jamin-bang||Bread produced from maize fermented for 3 to 6 days and cooked as a cake.||Brazil|
|Napú||Beverage consisting of germinated, ground, and fermented maize.||Peru|
|Ostoche||Alcoholic beverage concocted from maize juice and pulque or brown sugar||Mexico|
|Pozol||Non-alcoholic, albeit acidic, beverage produced as maize liquor. Balls of dough prepared from fermented masa are enveloped in banana leaves||Mexico|
|Quebranta huesos||Alcoholic beverage consisting of maize juice, toasted maize, and pirú fruits (Schinus molle)||Mexico|
|Sendechó||Alcoholic beverage fermented from germinated maize and red chili. Maize dough is resuspended in water, boiled, bestowed, cooled, and inoculated with Sendechó||Mexico|
|Sora||Alcoholic beverage produced from germinated, ground, cooked and fermented maize||Peru|
|Tepache||Alcoholic beverage fermented from maize grains, brown sugar, and water.||Mexico|
|Tesgüino||Alcoholic beverage produced from germinated maize, both ground and cooked with fragments of plants that serve as enzyme sources||Mexico|
|Tocos||Dessert produced from maize fermented for 2 to 3 months and then cooked.||Peru|
|Zarzaparrilla bark wine||Alcoholic beverage consisting of maize beer and zarzaparrilla bark||Mexico|
|SOURCE: Argelia Lorence-Quiñones, Carmen Wacher-Rodarte, and Rodolfo Quintero-Ramírez, 1999, with modifications and deletions).|
made from ground and unsprouted maize kernels, whereas the malt liquors make use of cornmeal ground from sprouted and dried maize kernels. Betty Fussell provides a detailed overview of the history and culture of moonshine, as well as first-hand accounts concerning the methods, ingredients, participants, and paraphernalia involved in bootlegging (pp. 25264).
The Globalization of Maize
Although the United States is the leading maize producer in the world, maize remains the primary staple for much of Latin America, which is why that region is the leading consumer of maize as a food for humans (as opposed to its consumption as a fodder for livestock and poultry). Since the days of its earliest evolution and domestication in Mexico, maize has been adopted as a primary staple or supplement in virtually every world region. Thus it has become the stuff of cross-cultural traditions and, more often than not, has taken center stage as the primordial embodiment of myth, ritual, legend, folklore, and ultimately multinational commerce and globalization. Apart from its many traditional uses and its consumption as whole maize kernels or as corn-on-the-cob, maize is key to an incredible variety of foods and products. One need only review Diane Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico to recognize the totality and dominance of maize and its byproducts in the whole of Mexican cuisine. Similarly, any superficial review of Julia Child's recipes in her book The Way to Cook will provide an encyclopedic retrospective on the place of maize as culinary ingredient and staple foodstuff in the most popular and trendy of American and international favorites.
See also Africa; Agriculture, Origins of; Combination of Proteins; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian.
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Ruben G. Mendoza Irene Casas