Inside the world of corn – The Denver Post

Many of the Get Cooking columns through fall and into winter will be dedicated to the foods of the Colombian Exchange, that vast interchange of foodstuffs between the New World and the Old World. If a food went from, say, the Americas to Europe, that week’s recipe will be from the place where the food landed. For example, though maize (corn) originated in present-day Mexico, the recipe is polenta, an Italian mainstay.

Of all the foods that Columbus and his peripatetic descendants brought from the New World to the Old — the turkey, potato, peanut, tomato and tobacco, among many — none since has been more widely planted globally than maize (Zea mays), what we call corn.

It remains the most important grain consumed by humans in Latin America (and also in Africa), and the second most consumed on Earth. But oddly, of the three global grain crops to include rice and wheat, it is the only one not grown primarily for direct human consumption. Humans eat a mere one-fifth of all maize grown globally; their animals eat two-thirds of it; and one-tenth is used in the manufacture of, broadly, other food and fuel. Most of the backbone of our overall North American diet, meat and dairy, is more properly viewed as converted corn.

Because it is highly mutable, genetically diverse and culturally adaptable, no grain grows in more varying places on earth: parched and rainy, high and low in altitude, or cool and warm.

While Zea mays originated as a wild grass in Mexico, “98 percent of all the corn consumed in Mexico today comes from the USA,” says Rafael Mier, founder of Fundación Tortilla de Máiz Mexicana, which promotes the growing and eating of indigenous Mexican maize. (Mexicans eat more than 200 pounds of corn per person per year, largely as tortillas; North Americans consume even more but, again, indirectly.)

Unlike the potato or tomato, maize met little resistance when introduced to Europe in the 1500s, and today it’s widely used there in recipes, although less popularly in the United Kingdom and France where the word “corn” is both a synonym for any grain (U.K.) and, as a food, as livestock fodder.

A French friend of my father’s from dental school brought back white corn seed to his backyard in Paris so that he and his family could enjoy the sweet corn that he had fallen in love with while living here in the 1940s. He was either envied or derided by his neighbors, never both.

Maize is more nutritious when combined with other foods (note the famed Mesoamerican trinity of corn, squash and beans) or when its hull is removed in the process of nixtamalization (most “hominy” or pozole or masa harina, hence many though not all corn tortillas and chips).

As for cooking with corn, well, variations are as legion as its placement all over the globe. However, we in North America often misunderstand or even mistreat the corn that we cook.