Like many of our favorite foods (tomatoes, chilies, squash, chocolate, and vanilla), corn is native to Mexico. There are 59 varieties of heirloom Mexican corn and many more hybrids and mixes. But most of the native corns of Mexico and the Americas are in deep risk of being lost and forgotten. Hybridized varietals (and in the U.S., GMO corns) that are easy and quick to grow are replacing the colorful and diverse varieties that have existed for thousands of years.
The History of Corn
Corn has a long and rich history in Mexico. In 1965, archeologist Richard MacNeish and his team uncovered a cave in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán biosphere in Puebla, Mexico. There they found evidence of the first domesticated corn that they were able to carbon date to 5,000 BC.
Corn is a manmade, domesticated plant. To create it, the ancient people of Mexico domesticated a wild growing plant called teocintle, a grass similar to rice with the grains growing as a cluster on a stalk. The major difference between teocintle and corn is that corn has a cob, while teocintle does not. It’s believed that the first domesticated corn was palomero or popcorn.
The Importance of Corn
Corn is, without a question, the principal food of Mexico. There are more than 600 dishes in Mexico that are made with corn, and if a dish isn’t made with corn, it’s likely served with tortillas. These dishes have a long tradition and history. Tortillas are thought to be 2,000 years old; tamales are thought to be 4,000 years old. A popular saying in Mexico is sin maíz, no hay país—without corn, there is no country.
And yet, with all of its importance, most people don’t know much about corn. Rafael Mier, owner of the organization Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, is one of Mexico’s leading experts on native corn and laments that Mexicans don’t know more about it. “It’s the principal food and we didn’t know the names of the corns.” Sure, nearly everyone could name any number of different grape or apple varieties, but how many different varieties of corn could you name? “We’re a country of corn, but we don’t know our corn,” he says, which is why his organization helps Mexicans learn about the different types of corn and how to prepare it, use it, and cook it.
Mier and his foundation focus heavily on the tortilla and its importance in the Mexican diet and as a vehicle for bringing native corns back to Mexico. 80 percent of the corn in Mexico goes to make tortillas. Tortillas also have an important approachability as “rich and poor people all eat tortillas,” explains Mier.
There are only three ingredients in a traditional tortilla—corn, water, and cal (lime). Through the process of nixtamalization, the dried kernels of corn are soaked in the cal and then rinsed and hulled. The corn is then ground and made into masa which is used to make tortillas.
Today however, most of the tortillas that you’ll eat in Mexico are not made from masa, but instead from an industrial packaged corn flour that lacks flavor and has been found to carry GMOs and pesticides.
The heirloom varieties of corn that are beautifully diverse in color, size, shape, and flavor are in danger of going extinct. It’s a problem throughout North and South America as corn is grown from Canada down to Chile/Argentina. “Corn doesn’t know borders,” says Mier, “it’s a grain of the Americas.”
Where to Find Heirloom Corn
- There are a number of restaurants in Baja California that are committed to using heirloom corn and making tortillas, tostadas, and other dishes from masa and native corns. At Corazón de Tierra restaurant in Valle de Guadalupe, Chef Diego Herdandez makes beautiful creations from heirloom corn and they also grow a few varieties of corn right there in the garden just outside the restaurant. In Tijuana, Los Compas is dedicated to dishes that focus on Mexico’s native corns made by Chefs Mario Peralta & Juan Cabrera. And in Ensenada, Sabina Bandera of La Guerrerense and Restaurante Sabina, grows her own corn and makes her own tortillas.
- Connect with Rafael Mier’s organization Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana and follow them on social media to learn about the movement in Mexico.
- If you want to buy legitimate masa, or even dried heirloom corn kernels to make your own masa, Masienda is a great place to order from. They have a wonderful book on nixtamalization and also sell corn mills, cal, and tortilla presses.
- To buy seeds to plant your own corn, check out websites like Native-Seeds-Search or Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seeds.