Maize as a Food

views updated May 23 2018

Maize as a Food

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 Mesoamericathe place where maize originatedare 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.

Nixtamal Production

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 atollior atole, in champurrado, which consists of a rich broth of atole mixed with chocolate, and in the alcoholic beverage known to the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico as tesguino. Many of these indigenous Mexican foods and beverages have been adopted or reinterpreted by agribusiness, nutritional scientists, the general public, and the food industry. Such foods are distributed internationally under such brand and trade names as Quaker masa harina (dough flour), Fritos, Taco Bell, Corn Chex, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Doritos, and many others.

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. 326327). 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. 330331). 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. 331332). 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. 203204).

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. Kwashiorkora severe form of malnutrition identified with infants and children dependent on high-carbohydrate and low-protein dietsalso 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. 2425). 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 used tortillas and steamed maize-dough tamales as containers or packets for an incredible variety of foodstuffs, including beans, squash, tomatoes, mushrooms, avocados, worms, rabbit, deer, turkey, and many other items (pp. 112119). Heriberto García Rivas has also investigated the extraordinary wealth and variety inherent in the maize-based pre-Columbian cuisines 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 Ilhuicaminathe illustrious penultimate emperor of the Mexica Aztecnever 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. 15211821), 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. 236237). 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. 2223). 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
Name Description Country
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. 252264).

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.


Amador Naranjo, Ascensión. Los tarahumaras. México: Agualarga Ediciones, 1995.

Arámbula-Villa, G., J. González-Hernández, and C. A. Ordorica-Falomir. "Physicochemical, Structural and Textural Properties of Tortillas from Extruded Instant Corn Flour Supplemented with Various Types of Corn Lipids." Journal of Cereal Science 33 (2001): 245252.

Child, Julia. The Way to Cook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Coe, Sophie D. America's First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Eubanks, Mary W. Corn in Clay: Maize Paleoethnobotany in Pre-Columbian Art. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Fernandez Chiti, Jorge. Hierbas y plantas curativas. Argentina: Ediciones Condorhuasi, 1999.

Fontana, Bernard L. Tarahumara: Where Night Is the Day of the Moon. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Publishing, 1979.

Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn. New York: North Point Press, 1992.

García Rivas, Heriberto. Cocina prehispánica mexicana: la comida de los antiguos mexicanos. México: Panorama Editorial, 1991.

Irigoyen Rascon, Fructuoso. Rarajipari: The Kick-Ball Race of the Tarahumara Indians. Mexico: Centro Librero La Prensa, 1995.

Iturriaga de la Fuente, José N. De tacos, tamales y tortas. México: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating around the World. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997.

Kennedy, Diana. The Cuisines of Mexico. Revised ed. Foreword by Craig Claiborne. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Lorence-Quiñones, Argelia, Carmen Wacher-Rodarte, and Rodolfo Quintero-Ramírez. Cereal Fermentations in Latin American Countries. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1992. Available online at

Orozco H., Maria Elena. Tarahumara, una antigua sociedad futura. Torreón, México: Impresora Colorama, 1992.

Pindell, Terry, with Lourdes Ramirez Mallis. Yesterday's Train, A Rail Odyssey Through Mexican History. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Preet, Edythe. "Thanks for the Miracle of Corn." Los Angeles Times Syndicate. 8 September 2000. Available online at

Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. Revised ed. Translated by Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Verdi, Sebastián. Esplendor y grandeza de la cocina mexicana. México: Editorial Diana, 1994.

Vogt, Evon Z. Tortillas for the Gods: A Symbolic Analysis of Zinacanteco Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Weber, Charles W., Edwin A. Kohlhepp, Ahmed Idouraine, and Luisa J. Ochoa. "Nutritional Composition of Tamales and Corn and Wheat Tortillas." Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 6 (1993): 324335.

Ruben G. MendozaIrene Casas

Tarahumara Indian TesgÜino Production

Anthropologist Bernard Fontana has documented the process identified with the production and fermentation of the maize beverage known as tesgüino to the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua, Mexico. This fermented maize drink may be processed from newly sprouted maize or malt, even though other variants of tesgüino may be processed from roasting maize ears or the fruit of the nopal cactus, shrubs, and selected fruit trees. The Tarahumara recipe for tesgüino is as follows: Maize kernels are distributed along the bottom of shallow baskets. The baskets are then covered with grasses and placed in a darkened location where they are sprinkled with water daily for four or five days, so as to stimulate the sprouting of the maize kernels contained therein. When the maize sprouts are approximately one inch in height, they are ground on a ground stone slab or metate and placed into pottery jars or metal bowls containing water. These are set to boil for approximately eight hours. Once the liquid acquires a yellowish hue, it is left to cool. The liquid is then strained into another bowl and mixed with other herbs to produce a paste into which more water is added. The mixture is then placed into specialized fermenting vessels that are stored in a warm location for the evening. The watery paste is then mixed with the strained maize broth and allowed to ferment for three to four days. Ultimately, tesgüino is intended for festive occasions such as the rarajipari kick-ball game and related rituals, and it should be consumed immediately since it begins to spoil within twelve hours of completing the recipe (p. 54).

From Arepas to Blue Corn Piki

Arepas are to Venezuelans, Colombians, and Peruvians what tortillas are to the Mexican people. In order to prepare arepas, dry white maize kernels are ground into flour, which is then mixed with water, oil, and salt, and then prepared in much the same way that tortillas are formed, except in this instance, the flat breads are smaller but much thicker in shape than tortillas. The larger and thicker tortillas, which characterize the maize flat breads of the Nicaraguans, allow for larger servings of beef or other ingredients to be placed in the tortilla-like container. The pupusas of El Salvador, prepared from lime-treated maize with the addition of cheese, are essentially smaller tortillas that are used primarily for burritos or taco-like containers of beef or chicken and legumes and vegetables. The humitas of Bolivia and Chile are yet another form of tamale consumed in South America. Invariably, precooked maize flour similar to lime-treated masa is mixed with other regional ingredients to produce humitas.

The Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona have processed maize into a particularly unique food known as piki bread for the past eleven centuries. Piki bread consists of a very thin, gray, and ashy maize tortilla or wafer created from blue corn meal by way of hand-coating a very hot and finely polished stone griddle with a watery maize dough paste. In The Story of Corn, Betty Fussell cites Hopi matriarch Helen Sekaquaptewa's acknowledgement that "Piki are the original cornflakes," thereby noting that these otherwise paper-thin, flaky, and quite tasty piki blue-corn wafers inspired the subsequent development of flaked corn (pp. 167168).

Maize: Myth and Symbol

The Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya, relates an origin myth that illustrates the role of maize as the hearth and source of Mayan culture and civilization itself. According to the Maya, the ancestors were fashioned from maize and bitter water. Thus depictions of maize plants and foods in the form of humanmaize anthropomorphs in Mesoamerican ceremonial and ritual contexts are common. The seventh-century polychrome murals of Cacaxtla, Mexico, present depictions of maize stalks with cobs in the form of human heads bearing Maya-like features and hair consisting of maize silks. Dennis Tedlock's translation of the Popol Vuh notes that in order to create the first human ancestors, it was necessary for the female deity and midwife Xmucane"the Bearer, Begetter, Sovereign Plumed Serpent"to grind the yellow and white maize nine times in order to render whole the flesh of the earliest ancestors (pp. 145146). Through this most ancient of legends and cultural lenses, the Maya continue to interpret their world, and in turn, be interpreted by the world about them. According to anthropologist Evon Z. Vogt, the Zinacanteco Indian healers and shaman of Chiapas, Mexico, conduct ancient and traditional rituals that make use of maize kernels, which are still viewed as a model for the structure of the human soul (pp. 9495). In addition to the spiritual and divinatory place of maize in both ancient and modern Maya cosmology and worldview, Zinacanteco and other Mayan healers prescribe maize in a variety of forms as a remedy for any and all spiritual and physical conflicts.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Lacandon Maya used pozol with water and honey to reduce fevers. At the same time, pozol was used as cataplasm to heal minor wounds and to counter the effects of diarrhea. According to Jorge Fernandez Chiti, a tea was blended from barbas de elote (corn silk or maize tassels) and this concoction remains a popular Latin American diuretic used in natural healing and medicine in this day and age. Barbas de elote continues to be used by Latin American curanderos or "curers" for the treatment of kidney and bladder problems, as well as a remedy for hepatitis and edema (p. 59).

Atole: An Aztec Brew

According to Heriberto García Rivas, atole, from the Aztec term atolli, signifies watery or watered-down liquid or beverage. Atole is one of the preferred maizebased drinks of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Since remote antiquity, atole has been prepared from boiled fresh maize ground into nixtamal. Once rendered into nixtamal, this by-product is boiled with a variety of ingredients including sugar, milk, and water to produce atole. In Mexico, when atole is mixed with chocolate it is called champurrado. The sixteenth-century Franciscan chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún documented information from his Mexican Aztec informants regarding the different kinds of atoles available in New Spain since pre-Columbian times. Heriberto García Rivas adds that beverages identified by Aztec-era chronicler Sahagún included totonquiatulli or hot atole, necuatolli or atole with syrup or honey, chinecuahtolli or atole with syrup and yellow chili, guanexatolli or atole processed from a thick or pasty nixtamal mix (p. 46). Atole is available from street-based food vendors and Mexican restaurants that serve traditional specialty food items in Mexico, Central America, and in many areas of the southwestern United States.


views updated May 14 2018


Maize (Zea mays mays), a coarse annual plant of the grass family (Gramineae). The staple crop of most Latin American countries, it is the most important native crop in the Western Hemisphere and is second only to wheat in commercial value. Maize is also the most photosyn-thetically efficient of the domesticated grains.

On 5 November 1492 two sailors returned from a reconnaissance mission into the interior of Cuba and reported to Columbus a grain called "maiz … a grain which was well tasted, bak'd, dry'd and made into flour." At that time maize was grown from southern Canada to southern Chile, from sea level to 10,000 feet. In the English-speaking world maize became known as Indian corn, "corn" being a common European term for cereal grain. In Latin America it continued to be called maíz.

There are six major types of maize, all developed by Native Americans in response to various environmental and cultural factors: (1) flint corn, with its hard kernels, is resistant to fungus and stores well in cooler and damper climates; (2) flour corn, with its soft, easily ground kernels, is best suited to warmer and drier climates; (3) dent corn, the most common "field corn," combines the hard features of flint with a flour "dent" over its soft center; (4) sweet corn, which accounts for only 3 percent of overall production because it cannot be dried and stored as easily as the preceding types; (5) popcorn, characterized by small and extremely hard kernels that must be parched or exploded before they can be further processed or eaten; and (6) pod corn, which is raised as a curiosity and represents a "primitive" race in that each kernel is surrounded by its own chaff (husk). Maize is unusual among the domesticated grains because it cannot effectively seed itself. Its seeds (kernels) are enclosed in a modified leaf (husk) and are so tightly attached to the spike (cob) that they cannot be easily dispersed.


Considerable controversy has surrounded the origin of domesticated maize. Unlike other major cereals, wild races of maize have not been discovered. Two competing theories have been proposed to explain the origin of domesticated maize. Paul Mangelsdorf, Richard MacNeish, and others have argued that maize was domesticated from a wild form that subsequently became extinct. They base their arguments on excavated material from the Valley of Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico, which they dated as early as 5000 b.c.e. (now redated to 3600 b.c.e.), and on maize pollen from Valley of Mexico lake sediments originally dated as early as 80,000 b.c.e. (now redated to as recent as the beginning of the common era). George Beadle, Hugh Iltis, and others have argued that maize was domesticated from one of the subspecies of teosinte (Zea mays mexicana, Zea mays parviglumis), a closely related wild grass. Current research on plant genetics utilizing molecular analysis supports the teosinte theory, and points to the Balsas River drainage of southwestern Mexico as the most probable region for first domestication.

Once domesticated, the cultivation of maize spread rapidly, first as a supplement to the diet of hunting and gathering populations. It may have reached the highlands of Peru as early as 4000 b.c.e., and southern South America soon after. As new races of maize were developed in South America they hybridized with the more ancient races from Mexico, which led to the rapid evolution of hundreds of varieties of domesticated maize.

Maize also spread north. By 2000 b.c.e. it was present at Bat Cave in west-central New Mexico. Within 600 years these first primitive ears found north of Mexico were followed by more productive varieties. Similar varieties, chapalote and naltel, are still grown in Mexico.

Unraveling the origin of maize has important consequences for the future of Latin American farmers. Current research on the recently discovered perennial teosinte species Zea diploperennis holds the promise of providing genetic material that can be used to increase the disease resistance of Zea mays. The incorporation of genetic material from ancient races of Mexican maize into modern hybrids can increase resistance to environmental stresses.


From its humble beginnings as a dietary supplement, maize was rapidly transformed into the essential crop that supported the growth of the first civilizations of the Americas. It was prepared with lime water or wood ash to release chemically bonded nutrients. When maize was combined with beans, squash, chiles, and small amounts of animal protein, it provided a diet far superior to any known in sixteenth-century Europe.

Throughout temperate Latin America maize was the staff of life. In the tropical lowlands of Mexico and Central America it became the dominant crop, and in Amazonia it became an important supplement to manioc-based diets. Maize was grown to its environmental limits in the Andes, but in the higher altitudes it was often replaced as a staple by potatoes and quinoa. It is not surprising that maize was incorporated into the religious life of all pre-Columbian civilizations.

When maize was first introduced to Europe, prominent herbalists referred to it as Turkish corn or wheat. Maize then had a brief vogue in the Mediterranean countries, but it was not prepared properly, nor nutritionally balanced with other crops. As a result, the dietary-deficiency disease pellagra became common in areas where maize was farmed, and it was abandoned as a food crop.

Since maize was associated with the conquered people of the Western Hemisphere, it remained unpopular among Europeans, and was thought by some to be, in the words of English herbalist John Gerard, "a more convenient food for swine than for man" (Charles B. Heiser, Jr., Seeds to Civilization, new ed., 1990, p. 92). This colonial attitude did not develop in sub-Saharan Africa, however, where maize was soon incorporated into indigenous subsistence systems and cuisines. Maize also became a staple crop in areas of India and China.

In Latin America maize remains the basis of most traditional meals and is prepared in over 300 ways; even the pollen and fungus (smut) is eaten; in Mexico, the latter, known as huitlacoche, is considered a delicacy. Maize also is fermented to produce the traditional maize beer (chicha) of the Andes.


Almost 350 million acres of maize were planted worldwide in 1985–1986. In North America it is primarily grown for animal feed and industrial products, while in Latin America it is primarily grown for food. Latin America accounts for approximately 42 million acres of the world's maize production. Four countries, China, Brazil, India, and Mexico, account for more than 50 percent of the total area planted to maize in the Third World.

Today, most processed foods contain starch, oil, or sugar from maize. Biodegradable products from diapers to "paper" bags are being produced from processed corn starch, and ethanol, an alcohol distilled from corn starch, is being mixed with gasoline for fuel. A quality-protein maize nearly twice as nutritious as normal maize is currently under development.

Corn has been at the center of debates concerning globalization and free trade. In 1994 Mexico signed a free-trade pact with Canada and the United States, which created the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). This agreement removed many trade barriers immediately and called for the end of all trade barriers on agricultural products like corn and beans by 2007. This latter deadline, however, generated criticism from many Mexicans, because the U.S. promotion of corn-based ethanol caused a dramatic rise in maize prices. This increase in turn pushed up the price of tortillas, a staple in the Mexican diet, causing them to be too expensive for many consumers.

See alsoAgriculture; Globalization.


Paul Weatherwax, Indian Corn in Old America (1954).

Alexander Grobman, Races of Maize in Peru (1961).

Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Richard S. MacNeish, and W. C. Galinat, "Domestication of Corn," in Science 143 (1964): 538-545.

Howard Walden, Native Inheritance: The Story of Corn in America (1966).

George W. Beadle, "The Ancestry of Corn," in Scientific American 242 (1980): 112-119.

Hugh H. Iltis, "From Teosinte to Corn: The Catastrophic Sexual Transmutation," in Science 222 (1983): 886-894.

Stephen J. Gould, "The Short Way to Corn," in Natural History 93 (1984): 12-20.

Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Corn: Its Origin, Evolution, and Improvement (1984).

Ranulfo Cavero Carrasco, Maíz, chicha y religiosidad andina (1986).

Bruce F. Benz, "Racial Systematics and the Evolution of Mexican Maize," in Studies in the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions, edited by Linda Manzanilla (1987).

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, The 1986 CIMMYT World Maize Facts and Trends: The Economics of Commercial Maize Seed Production in Developing Countries (1987).

Museo Nacional De Culturas Populares, El maíz, fundamento de la cultura popular mexicana, 3d ed. (1987).

National Research Council, Quality-Protein Maize (1988).

Proceedings of the Global Maize Germplasm Workshop, Recent Advances in the Conservation and Utilization of Genetic Resources (1988).

Flavio Rojas Lima, La cultura del maíz en Guatemala (1988); Maydica 35 (1990), special issue devoted to Zea diploperennis; Charles B. Heiser, Jr., Seeds to Civilization: The Story of Food, new ed. (1990).

Simposium Nacional Del Maíz, El maíz en la década de los 90 (1990).

Robert E. Rhoades, "The Golden Grain," in National Geographic 183 (1993): 92-117.

Additional Bibliography

García, Martha; Sandra Luz; and Mauricio García Sandoval. El maíz: Sustento del pasado y presente en la cultura popular nacional. Toluca, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 1999.

McAfee, Kathleen. "Corn Culture and Dangerous DNA: Real and Imagined Consquences of Maize Transgene Flow in Oaxaca." Journal of Latin American Geography 2:1 (2003), 18-42.

Torres Torres, Felipe. La industria de la masa y la tortilla: Desarrollo y tecnología. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, 1996.

                                      Donald E. McVicker


views updated May 23 2018


Maize (Zea mays L.), otherwise known as corn, is a highly unusual, economically important, and genetically well-characterized member of the grass family. It is believed to have originated some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in the fields of the first agriculturalists of Mexico and Central America. These early farmers carefully selected traits that would ultimately transform the tiny, sparsely seeded spike of a wild grass into the large cob bearing many rows of kernels that we recognize today as an ear of corn.

The success of these early plant breeders was manifested by the spread of corn cultivation throughout the New World, long before the arrival of Europeans. Today, maize is grown in more countries than any other crop, and is a major source of food for both humans and domesticated animals throughout the world. The world production of maize in 2000 exceeded 23 billion bushels, the largest producer being the United States (43 percent).

Early Studies of Maize

As a major crop plant, maize was already the subject of study by plant breeders at the time of the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of inheritance at the beginning of the twentieth century. The inheritance patterns of readily observed traits were uncovered through controlled crosses and the examination of progeny. In many respects, maize was an ideal model system for this early period in the study of genetics. Male and female flowers are borne separately and are easily manipulated for controlled crosses. Large amounts of pollen are produced in the tassels (male inflorescence) over a period of days, and one ear (female inflorescence) contains many seeds (kernels). Large progeny arrays could be produced in one season.

The high genetic diversity of maize provided many interesting mutant phenotypes to study, many of which were recessive. These could be maintained in a heterozygous state by the outcrossed breeding system (most fertilizations are the result of pollen transfer among plants) and easily uncovered by selfing (fertilizations that result from a plant's own pollen). There was also ample scope for selection of extreme phenotypes in continuous (quantitative) traits. A drawback for maize, compared to short-lived fruit flies, is that it only produces one or two crops per year, depending on location. However, many early maize geneticists knew that kernel phenotypes, which were discernable at harvest time, often predicted phenotypes in the adult plants, and could be used to set up the following season's crosses.

One of the earliest breakthroughs in crop breeding was the detection of hybrid vigor in maize by George Harrison Shull in 1908. He found that the progeny of two inbred lines were more productive than their wind-pollinated progenitors. This discovery provided the stimulus for the commercial propagation of maize and made it one of the most productive food plants worldwide.

Later Maize Studies

Many important genetic discoveries were made in maize by a group of scientists brought together at Cornell University in the 1920s and 30s by R. A. Emerson, who is often referred to as the spiritual father of maize genetics. The Emerson group, which included the future Nobel laureates Barbara McClintock and George Beadle, laid the foundation of maize genetics. They assembled information on maize mutants and ultimately produced the first genetic map of maize, based on linkage studies, in 1935. McClintock's first major contribution occurred early in her career (1929), when she perfected the techniques used to visualize maize chromosomes under the microscope. This allowed individual chromosomes to be identified by size, form, and features such as the highly staining regions, called "knobs."

This milestone allowed McClintock and other members of the Emerson group to make major advances in cytogenetics , which combines genetic crossing data and cytological landmarks to locate genes on chromosomes. Cytological landmarks include trisomics , reciprocal translocations, and deficiencies. Another of McClintock's breakthroughs, achieved with the collaboration of her colleague Harriet Creighton, was to establish the cytological proof of crossing over, which refers to the exchange of chromosomal segments during meiosis. Of course, McClintock's most famous discovery was that genetic elements within the genome can move (transpose) from one locus on the chromosome to another. These "jumping genes" (transposable genetic elements of transposons) were later discovered in bacteria, flies, and humans and eventually resulted in McClintock receiving a Nobel Prize in 1983.

In recent years, transposable elements have been exploited as tools for understanding the function of many maize genes. If a transposon inserts into a gene, it will disrupt the function of that gene. The disruption of gene function may result in a mutant phenotype affecting tissues or developmental stages of the plant that give some indication of the function of that gene. For instance, a transposon that inserts into a gene required for chlorophyll production would result in an albino seedling. Because the DNA sequences of many transposable elements in maize are known, they provide convenient molecular tags with which to clone and further characterize the gene into which they have inserted. Corn transposons have also been adapted to mutagenize and "tag" genes in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

see also ARABIDOPSIS THALIANA ; Crossing Over; Heterozygote Advantage; Mcclintock, Barbara; Model Organisms; Transposable Genetic Elements.

Denise E. Costich


Dold, Catherine. "The Corn War." Discover (December 1997): 109-113.

Fedoroff, Nina, and David Botstein, eds. The Dynamic Genome: Barbara McClintock's Ideas in the Century of Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1992.

Kass, Lee B. "Barbara McClintock: American Botanical Geneticist (1902-1992)." In Plant Sciences for Students, vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 2000.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1983.

Rhoades, Marcus M. "The Early Years of Maize Genetics." Annual Review of Genetics 18 (1984): 1-29.


views updated May 17 2018

maize Grain of Zea mays, also called Indian corn and (in the USA) simply corn. Staple food in many countries, made into tortillas in Latin America, into polenta in Italy, and flaked as cornflakes as a breakfast cereal; various preparations in the southern states of the USA are known as hominy, samp, and cerealine.

Two varieties of major commercial importance are flint corn (Zea mays indurata), which is very hard, and dent corn (Z. mays dentata); there is also sweet corn (Z. mays saccharata), and a variety that expands on heating (Zea mays everta, see popcorn). The starch prepared from Z. mays dentata is termed corn flour; the ground maize is termed maize meal. There is a white variety; the usual yellow colour is partly due to the carotenoid cryptoxanthin.

Because of its low content of the amino acid tryptophan (and available niacin), diets based largely on maize are associated with the development of pellagra.

A 60‐g portion of sweetcorn kernels is a source of vitamin C; contains 1.2 g of fat, of which 10% is saturated; provides 2.4 g of dietary fibre; supplies 75 kcal (315 kJ).


views updated May 29 2018

maize / māz/ • n. technical or chiefly British term for corn1 .ORIGIN: mid 16th cent.: from Spanish maíz, from Taino mahiz.


views updated May 29 2018

maize (corn or sweet corn) Cereal plant of the grass family. Originally from Central America, it is the key cereal in subtropical zones. Edible seeds grow in rows upon a cob, protected by a leafy sheath. Height: to 5m (16ft). Species Zea mays.


views updated Jun 08 2018

maize XVI (mais, mahiz, mayis, etc.). — F. mais, † mahiz, or its source Sp. maiz, † mahiz, -is, † mayz, of Carib orig.


views updated May 18 2018

maize See ZEA.

maize flour

views updated May 21 2018

maize flour Highly refined and very finely ground maize meal from which all bran and germ have been removed.


views updated Jun 27 2018


This entry includes two subentries:
The Natural History of Maize
Maize as a Food