Falling from grace: From feeding Gods to feeding cattle

Mayan God of corn

Among many things that mesmerised Christopher Columbus when he arrived in what he believed was the East Indies was the corn maize and the tortillas made from it. They realised how corn was revered but also eaten in so many varieties of ways; it soon identified its importance as a resource to feed the masses. So he obviously decided to take this inexpensive, highly yielding, almost all climate adaptable seeds with him across the Atlantic among the other unknown delicacies at that time: cacao, pineapple, vanilla, chillies, turkey, zucchini, pumpkins, kumara, avocado and many many more. 

In Europe, corn was specifically used to feed slaves and the poor. But corn was doomed from its arrival to the old world; a bad reputation would fall onto it that would tarnish its nutritional benefits in Europe for many, many years. The first Europeans and conquistadores thought the whole nixtamalization process was a joke - something dumb and redundant. So, they decided to omit that tiny little process when they started propagating it throughout the rest of the world. They ate the cake mix without adding an egg and cooking it in the oven!

European farmers who adapted corn into their diets.

 

Fast forward to 1735, and you have the first case of Pellagra reported in Europe. Spain to be specific. The damage was done in terms of the corn reputation in the old continent. By the 1800s corn had become food for the common European poor peasant, and even currency to trade slaves in Africa. The cases of Pellagra started popping everywhere. And, when all your peasants start developing awful scaly sores, terrible diarrhoea, and drop dead - possibly all at once too - then you start to worry. They initially thought that Pellagra was caused by a fungus or bacteria that attacked the corn. Truth was later discovered: Pellagra is a disease caused due to lack of vitamin B3. That same Vitamin B3 you would get amongst the calcium, fibre, iron and magnesium from nixtamalized corn. 

At this point in time, It didn’t matter anymore; corn gradually became food for pigs and cows and chickens for many many years to come throughout Europe. Even till this day we humans mainly eat only one variety of corn - the beautiful, sweet yellow corn normally buttered and salted. White maize and other types of corn still are not palatable enough for the average Non-Mexican, but in Mexico alone there are more than 70 species of endemic corn. We nixtamalize pretty much all of them. 

Get this! - corn also arrived in New Zealand - hundreds of years ago. Thus far there are 8 identified endemic species of corn here in Aotearoa- brought either by early European settlers or even by early Polynesian sailors - the corn found here has branched off enough during the couple hundred years or so that it’s entirely a new strain. There’s lots of history still to be written about corn, nixtamalization and its incorporation to New Zealand cuisine. Exciting!

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