American Plate - Bite #1: Maize

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
It should come as no surprise that maize is first and foremost in a book about the history of American foods. What else would kick off the story of our nation's cuisine? It's been cultivated on our continent since 7000 B.C.E. That was in Mesoamerica, though, so you'd have to skip up to about 4000 years ago for maize to reach what would later become the United States, grown by ancestors of the Hopi tribe in Arizona and New Mexico. From there, it took at least two thousand additional years to pop up in the agriculture of New England, though historians argue about whether it spread from the Southwest or was "discovered" independently. Point is, corn has been with us for our entire lives as a culture.

I'm using the words corn and maize interchangeably, but they're not truly identical. Corn refers to a region's local grain, which could be anything, from wheat to oats to barley to maize. The latter obtained such a strong grip on America's diet that it became symbolic of corn itself, the way that people say "Kleenex" instead of "tissue". How did maize get to be King of the American Grains? It has a lot going for it. Though every tribe had their own methods and traditions regarding the best way to cultivate maize, the plant itself helped them out by being extremely hardy and adaptable. It can grow in poor soil conditions. It doesn't need an abundance of water. It requires no special tools to farm. It's easily stored, and lasts for a really long time. And nutritionally, it's packed with calories, which may be a concern for modern society, but was vital to a populace that needed as much caloric bang for the buck as they could get.

There's another nifty benefit for maize that will span a trio of Bites for this project: It's the first member of the Three Sisters. Maize was planted in low mounds, around which were planted the other two members: beans and squash. These three crops formed an incredible symbiotic relationship, both in their growth and nutritionally. As bean plants grew, their tendrils climbed the cornstalk, providing structural support to both plants. Large, flat leaves of the squash plant spread out at the base, providing cover from pests and discouraging weeds. And while maize isn't a complete protein, it becomes one when eaten with beans. Add in the extra punch of vitamins from squash, and it's easy to see why the Three Sisters stuck together.

While the history of maize is endlessly fascinating, the American Plate Project isn't just about research. Let's get to the eating! I'm writing this entry in May, so we're entering an excellent season for corn. True, modern corn has little in common with the plant the ancestral Native Americans would have been growing. Ours is soft and yellow, bursting with sweetness. The maize of old would have grown in a rainbow of colors, and been extremely hard, requiring a soak in water before eating so that the nutrients could be absorbed.

Corn is the sole Bite of the book to be mentioned more than once, so I thought that since this was Bite #1, I should focus on corn by itself for now, rather than as an ingredient in recipes. And it turns out there's really no bad time to have corn. The picture above features corn in three vastly different situations, but it's an equally-appropriate side dish in all of them. I ate corn at a friend's celebratory barbecue with some smoked brisket. I ate corn at a Cajun restaurant to complement the spice of the gumbo. I ate corn as an essential component of a comfort food plate at a local upscale restaurant, alongside a hearty meatloaf and some mashed potatoes.

And those are just the occasions where I remembered to snap a picture! It takes so little to make corn delectable. All you need is a dash of salt and pepper with some butter, and you're ready to go. I mean, just try and take a look at this and tell me you don't want some corn right now. Just like I do with actors, I mostly tend to admire foods that are versatile. Hot dogs are great, but they're really only good at being eaten as hot dogs. But give me a food that's as portable, as tasty, and as welcome in as many situations as corn, and I'm a fan for life.