Corn gets a mighty bad rap in some quarters these days, and that seems unfair to me. For as far as I can tell, the most corn has ever done to us is prove itself incredibly useful. It must be, since we in America grow about 10 billion bushels of the stuff every year. We eat it, feed to livestock, and turn it into everything from sweeteners to whiskey to chicken nuggets to plastics, clothing, dry cell batteries, pharmaceuticals and engine fuel, all of which qualifies it as one of the world’s ultimate raw materials. Of course this is not to say that there aren’t problems with big agriculture, there are. But then we’d have many of the same problems whether we were growing fava beans, buckwheat, turnips or wheat grass, none of which would be anywhere near as versatile. Seen for what it is, corn is nothing short of a miracle plant, a fact that many a New World culture before us understood.
Predecessors of modern-day Mexican peoples, the Mayans, held corn in especially high regard. In fact they based their spirituality on it. The Mayans believed that the spirit of corn infused all things, including the first people, who according to legend were made from corn. It’s hard to dispute the logic, since the Mayans ate corn, dried and stored corn, made it into bread, fed it to animals (which they ate). No wonder one of their terms for human beings was “corn walking”.
But it might not have been so. By all botanical accounts, corn was an accident of nature. Unlike virtually all other human food crops, which are products of selection and careful manipulation, corn was a random, radical mutation of a grass called teosinte, one that ancient Mexican people happened to spot and begin cultivating some 10,000 or so years ago. Given that, it’s easy to see why the ancients considered it a gift from the gods and every new harvest a miracle. I guess in the age of industrial food production it’s hard to get in touch with that kind of primordial awe, though I have to say if I were to pick a plant to base a religion on, I could do a heck of a lot worse than corn.