Corn is the most widely consumed food item in the world. If you look on the back of almost any food product, some form of corn will likely be listed in the ingredient list. However, the corn that is used in the industrial food system doesn´t resemble anything like the actual ears of corn that grown on the Zea Mays plant.
Through the wonders of industrial food, corn can be turned into high fructose corn syrup, which is an additive added to everything from soft drinks to cereals. Your can of Coke might not taste like a fresh ear of corn on the cob, but it does contain corn. Corn starches are added to give volume to a number of food items though they also don´t resemble the actual plant we know of as corn.
Corn was first domesticated by the ancient Mayans of what is now present-day Mexico and Guatemala. The teosintle plant was a wild ancestor of the corn plant that grew untamed in the jungles of the Mayan World. If given the right conditions, the teosintle plant would eventually yield a tiny fruit resembling a corn cob about the size of a Cheeto (another modern-day food product that contains corn).
The ancient Mayans took the Teosintle plant from the wild, planted it in their gardens, and through hundreds of years of selection and care, eventually developed the corn plant: a stalk grain that yields between two and three large ears per plant. Compared to other grain relatives like oats and wheat, the corn plant is truly miraculous for the amount of edible carbohydrate grain that it produces per plant.
But the Mayans didn´t stop there, as the newly developed corn plant traveled throughout the Mayan Kingdom, different varieties of corn were developed that adapted to the specific conditions and particular climate of each region. Some corn varieties adapted well to the cool and rainy mountainous regions while other varieties created high yields in the hot and dry lowlands.
The Mayan people developed literally thousands of varieties of corn of all colors of the rainbow. Yellow and white corn cobs are the ones we most often identify on the shelves of our grocery store, but the Mayans also developed red and purple corn, corn with blue and black kernels, and ears of corn that were multicolored. In Oaxaca, Mexico, one variety of corn is even a bright green color.
The sheer diversity of these heirloom varieties of corn became a staple of Mayan culture as the seeds were carefully preserved and passed down from generation to generation. Thousands of traditional recipes were developed for each type of corn. Corn was cooked with lime water to create the meal used to create tortillas. The meal could also be used as a filling in certain types of banana leaves to create tamales. Another type of corn with extremely large kernels (called horse-teeth corn in some areas) was used to make posole, a traditional soup of the Mayans of southern Mexico.
The Popul Vuh, one of the spiritual books of the ancient Mayans, calls the Mayan civilization “the people of corn.” Modern day American society could also be considered “the people of corn” due to the amount of processed corn found in our food. The Mayans, however, have much to teach us about how to truly appreciate the miracle of corn.