Nixtamalize me

May 26, 2010 History Comments (0) 305

I spent the past couple evenings watching some of the many, many episodes of Good Eats on my DVR. One episode in particular (“Tort(illa) Reform“) was especially thought provoking.  One of the things that endears me to the show is how Alton Brown presents not only recipes but the science and often the anthropology behind foods.  In this case, corn.

The foodstuff in question is actually properly called “maize.”  The name “corn” is applied in Europe to most cereal crops.  In this case, we’re dealing specifically with the starchy, thick-hulled maize used by the Aztecs to make nixtamal, AKA “hominy,” which begets masa which begets all manor of deliciousness.

After Cortez got done pretending to be a god and eradicating the massive Aztec empire, he returned to Europe with lots and lots of gold, but also maize.  Unfortunately for the Europeans, Cortez was too busy killing Aztecs to notice their methods of producing nixtamal.  See, the Aztecs learned thousands of years prior that by soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution of water and wood ash they could remove the pericarp, or outer hull. Skipping this step leaves the maize nutritionally inefficient, and that’s why many European cultures that adopted maize as a staple food were stricken with pellagra, a niacin deficiency that fanatical “House MD” fans like me will recognize from the second-season episode “Forever,” in which it made a lady attempt to drown, and then successfully smother, her baby.

According to Good Eats, the Europeans were stricken not so much with baby-drowny syndrome but with the “dreaded D’s”: diarrhea, dementia, and death.  Alton cleverly refers to this as “Montezuma’s revenge,” but that’s the part that got me thinking.  Corn was one of the great gifts of the New World, not only taken by Cortez from the Mesoamericans but also famously presented by the American Indians to the famous Mayflower Pilgrims – and we all know how that worked out for the Indians.

Nowadays, of course, corn, or at least the high-fructose syrup derived therein, is one of the many ways we Americans are blithely killing ourselves, and corn-derived biofuel is one of the many snake-oils we’re selling each other as an alternative energy source, even though it apparently requires more than one gallon of gasoline to manufacture one gallon of corn ethanol.  Corn was also one of the first crops to be grown in excess by American farmers, making necessary the farm subsidies that, one could argue, kicked off the whole entangled mess of government and corporate-industrial interests we find ourselves in today.

So I guess what I’m saying is, though the Native Americans may have lost the land, maybe they’ll have the last laugh.  Corn – sorry, Maize – is fighting back.

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