The Popol Vuh was the sacred text of the Maya people, their “Book of Counsel” or “Book of Community”, and within it lies a myth of creation: the gods made their first man out of mud, but the result did not live up to their expectations as he could neither move nor speak. They then carved him out of wood, and were disappointed once more: he lacked soul, emotion and intellect. In their third attempt, they mixed their own blood into a dough of corn, masa de maíz, and thereby brought the People of Corn into existence.
With the creation came the necessity to feed man, and according to Aztec legend, the responsibility for providing the appropriate sustenance to carry him through life fell upon the Plumed Serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. Disguised as a red ant, he followed an ant trail and travelled deep into the earth. There he found the “grains of sustenance” which have fed not only the People of Corn for millenia, but also much of the rest of the world: corn is now one of the three most extensively cultivated grains on earth, along with wheat and rice.
Mexico, and in particular the valley of Tehuacán around Puebla, is known as “la cuna del maíz”, the cradle of corn, and the veneration and cultivation of corn are inextricably woven not only into Mexican history, but into modern culture and everyday living. Corn was the main food crop of the ancient Mexican civilisations and was worshipped as the source of life and the father of man. The Florentine Codex, a record of pre-hispanic Aztec society compiled by the Spanish monk, Bernadino de Sahagún, after the conquest speaks of corn as “our sustenance, our life, our being”, and the Aztec Náhuatl word for corn dough, “toneuhcayotl”, translates as “our flesh”.
The earliest traces of corn on earth were discovered by the American archaeologist, Richard McNeish, in Tehuacán and Oaxaca in the mid 1900s, and date back to approximately 8000BC. However, its origins probably lie in the domestication of a wild grass, “teozintle“, which grew in the Sierra Madre mountains and became the ancestor of the sixty or so varieties of corn which are cultivated in Mexico today and which come in no less than five colours: black, yellow, red, blue and white. And while the People of Corn depended on corn for their very survival, corn itself was created by the People and cannot survive without a human hand to sow, cultivate and harvest it: its grains are tightly wrapped in its husk and the plant cannot therefore self-propagate – without the People, corn would never have come into being or survived.
The People planted the corn in the “milpas” or corn fields, along with other staples of the pre-hispanic diet like beans, squashes and chillies, and out of the milpa grew a cuisine which still exists today. A recipe book published some years ago by the National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico lists no less than 605 recipes from all over the country involving corn and its preparation – quite a record for a single plant.
The process of soaking and cooking the corn in a mixture of lime and water, which began around 1000BC, softened the kernels and loosened the skins, resulting in “nixtamal”: yielding, malleable grains which could be ground into a dough or “masa”. Tortillas, the most Mexican of foods, were the next step and these thin corn pancakes, now over 2000 years old, are eaten by the 21st century People of Corn at virtually every meal – in fact it is reckoned that each and every Mexican eats almost 200 kilos of tortillas every year.
In my next article, I shall be writing about tortillas in greater detail and starting a series on the many typical and traditional tortilla-based dishes which lie at the heart of the People of Corn's cuisine.