History of Corn

The sacred corn and demonizing of Native culture

(Image of Corn Dance by Richard Kern)

History of corn in Native cultures is so deep because they revered corn over anything else on Earth. They deeply believed that the first humans were made from plants. They considered it so sacred that when they saw the Europeans feed it to their monsters (horses), they were appalled to say the least.

Of course, this was not done consciously by the white men. Columbus actually became quite fond of the corn. That was changed when the white men went from being guests to invaders. Then the Europeans felt obliged to demonize the enemy’s favourite food.

Corn's demonizing and lower status

‘The barbarous Indians which know no better are constrained to make a virtue of necessity, and think it good food,’

wrote the author of the well-known Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. “Whereas we may easily judge that it nourishes but little and is of hard and evil digestion,” he continued.

When running out of things to say about this corn, they began calling it the  “Turkish Wheat” after their enemies in Istanbul at the time.

Europeans colonists in America became too reliant on corn to completely snub it so they assigned to lower status items among their foods.  “Gentemen’s houses,” once said the Robert Beverly in 1705, “usually had bread made of wheat,” while corn bread was “mostly reserved for the servants.” There is a famous African-American reference to this. It went “we grow the wheat and they give us the corn.”

History of corn suggests that corn became so frowned upon that no American cookbook bothered to print a single corn recipe until the eve on nineteenth century. Interestingly, it is an attitude still reflected in corn’s relatively low popularity on the food table.

Corn today and "corny" matters

Within the history of corn, its primary role has been as the “junk food,” like popcorn and chips, or as animal feed. The prejudice is so severe that we equate “corny” with “trite”,”meaningless”. The message is clear it is junk food and basically garbage.

It is difficult to identify the cause of social attitudes and taboos. However, psychologists have noted that parents identify “bad food” to their children not based on nutritional value but on class associations. This, of course, in North American context  is underlined by race relations.

Important point to note is that chocolate and tomatoes were first introduced to European elite, who then reintroduced to North America. As a result, they gained quick popularity. However, corn and turkey were introduced directly from Native American cuisine. They remained marginalized in many ways.

Influence of corn and banning Native American traditions

Another interesting fact within history of corn and corn's reverence in Native American culture comes from the North American governments forcing Indians onto reservations. They began banning their feasts and traditional foods.

history of corn

“These dances or feasts, as they called, ought to be discontinued,” wrote Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller to the Commission of Indian Affairs in 1882.  He was referring to events like the green corn dance of the Cherokee tribe.

When anthropologists, like Frank Cushing from Smithsonian, “went native” among the Zuni tibes in the early 1900s, he discovered an entire culture and cuisine based on corn.

There were hot-pink, green, blue, white corn cakes. They were made extra pale by adding kaolin clay. Then there were the prized purple-colored pastries called he-wi or piki, a kind of mille-feuille made of layers of thin blue corn crepes. There was also dumplings, biscuits, and event “Ice cream” bread made by freezing rather than baking.

There were creamy corn biscuits and “salted buried bread” called k’os-he-pa-lo-kia made from best white corn cooked in corn leaves and flavoured with licorice or wild honey.

history of corn

Native people expressed themselves in ideas and language directly derived from their loved cuisine. Just as we would complement a woman with creamy smooth skin, the highest compliment a Zuni girl could receive was to be told her cheeks were “smooth and silky as the piki stone” used for cooking maize crepes.

When the American government made the Hopi language illegal in 1910 and began pushing “American” foods like white flour, potatoes, roast beef, and sugar, it spelled an end to historic cuisine. It also eliminated an entire way of life.

Surprisingly, corn-based cuisine of the Southwest survived, only to have the Europeans make the plant unsafe to eat. Scientists now believe that the high-sugar corn hybrids in the 1950s helped cause a massive outbreak of diabetes and other diseases in Native population. This is because the Native American’s digestive system has trouble breaking down sugar. Before the 1950s, diabetes was unheard of in the Native communities. Now it has the highest rates in the world.


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