One thing of which we are all relatively certain here in the U.S. is that European settlers learned about corn from American Indians. Right? Well, not really. What they learned about from the indigenous peoples of the New World was maize, not corn. Sound like double talk? Well, as it turns out, the word corn may not mean what you think it does, at least not if you’re an American. The term corn actually means the most important cereal crop of a region. Hence, wheat was traditionally the corn of England, oats were the corn of Ireland and Scotland, rye was the corn of northern Germany, and in South Africa, the grain known as Bantu corn is millet. The term can also mean small, hard seed, which is why the seed from barley is often called barleycorn. When settlers reached the New World, they called the grain grown most commonly by the Native Americans “Indian corn.” Which explains why, even though no one in Europe had seen maize before they reached the Americas, you see references to corn in older literature. Only in the United States is the word corn used to denote maize alone.
(A little etymological aside here: The corn that means grain comes from Old Norse, korn, which means “grain.” The hard bump that grows on some toes, though it may feel like a hard seed, actually gets its name from the Middle English/Middle French corne, which means “horn.” So the words are unrelated.)
Zea mays, or maize, is the only cereal grain indigenous to the New World. It appears to have been domesticated around 6600 BC in the area of Mexico known today as Oaxaca, where, scholars conjecture, it was intentionally bred from a wild grass known as teosinte. (The conjecture is that it was intentionally bred, not that it came from teosinte.) Teosinte still grows in some parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Interestingly, while teosinte does just fine on its own, maize doesn’t. Maize is, in fact, the only cereal grain that cannot disperse its seeds without human intervention. It is so domesticated it can’t get along without us.
For most of history, throughout the world, farming was small-scale, with crops being hand harvested. The advantage to this was that a farmer could notice the idiosyncrasies of individual plants and could choose to save seeds from those plants that had interesting traits, and then breed the plants that grew from those seeds. This was true in the Americas as maize was developing. Because this farmer/crop dynamic is really effective, the numbers of varieties of maize expanded dramatically and rapidly, until there was a maize variety for every purpose, climate, and soil.
An early form of maize was spreading through Mexico by around 6000 BC, being bred and modified as it moved. By 3500 BC, maize was a staple in most of Mexico and Central America. It appears to have reached Peru by 2000 BC. Trade routes carried it north, as well, until in time maize had become the primary food plant of American cultures ranging from the tribes of the Caribbean Islands to the cliff dwellers of the American Southwest, the Inca of Peru to the mound builders of the Mississippi.
Europeans first encountered maize when they first encountered the Americas. Columbus and crew were fed maize in the Caribbean islands on which they landed. In fact, the word maize is simply the Spanish rendering of the Taino word mahiz, the Taino being one of the groups of islanders that entertained the newcomers.
While maize was nutritionally inferior to other cereal grains, it had the advantage of being relatively easy to grow, and it would, in one form or another, grow almost anywhere. This is the reason that maize saved all those early settlers you read about in your history books. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to farm, it was that they didn’t have anything that would grow in the various adverse conditions in which they generally found themselves, from the rocky soil of New England to the swampy, saline site of Jamestown.
Since those earliest encounters between Old World and New, maize has spread worldwide, particularly to Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean. This spreading was not always a happy thing. Because of its nutritional shortcomings, in areas where diets were more focused on starchy staples (and this included Italy, as well as Africa, back in the 1700s), there were huge epidemics of pellagra. Native Americans had avoided the problems two ways. Of course, you probably already know about the beans/maize/squash triad, but indigenous peoples also treated corn with lime (the alkali, not the fruit). This improves the nutritional value of maize and reduces the chance of developing pellagra. The new countries where corn was introduced didn’t know corn’s shortcomings or the methods for overcoming them, so corn at times seemed more a curse than a food source. (It wasn’t until 1937 that it was discovered that supplementation with niacin could prevent and even cure pellagra.)
The sweet corn that is now so popular, both on and off the cob, is a comparatively new discovery. The Iroquois appear to have been growing it in central New York by the 1600s, but European settlers didn’t discover it until 1799. However, it wasn’t widely cultivated until after the Civil War. After that, its popularity grew steadily, and since World War I, canned sweet corn has outsold all other canned vegetables in the U.S. (And, as an aside, in a world where labels are strange and fluid things, while there are many fruits that are considered vegetables, corn is the only cereal grain that is considered a vegetable.)
Most of the maize that had traveled to Europe before the discovery of sweet corn was dry and not as useful in traditional cuisine as the other, abundant grains already growing there. So it didn’t catch on, other than in the Mediterranean. Many Europeans still view maize primarily as animal fodder, but then, their experience has often be limited to the field corn that is actually used primarily as animal fodder in the U.S. Most of them still haven’t experienced the tasty varieties that make up such an important part of the culinary scene in the Americas.
Despite its popularity in China and Africa, maize still enjoys its greatest importance in the hemisphere of its birth. The United States produces more than half of all the maize harvested in the world. Maize is grown in every state of the Union and on three-quarters of the country’s farms.
Outside the U.S., as well as among Native Americans and Hispanics in the American Southwest, the corn being used is rarely the sweet variety. The corn varieties ground for flour or meal or processed into hominy, whether in Africa or South America, are higher in starch and lower in sugar than sweet corn.
Maize is now one of the world’s three most important crops, in third place behind wheat and rice. However, though more wheat and rice are consumed by humans, because maize has so many other uses (from cattle feed to packing material to alternative energy sources), more maize is harvested than either of the other staple grains.
So wherever you go, you’re likely to run into maize in some form or other. And don’t worry too much about the corn/maize terminology. Because American culture has spread as far as maize has, you’ll find that, in most places, people will know what you mean now when you say “corn.”
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.
©2008 Cynthia Clampitt
P.S. If you find this topic interesting, you may be interested to learn that I have actually now written an entire book on the subject: Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland (U of IL Press. 2015). Because there is so much more to corn/maize than you can imagine.