It seems so simple. A ripe ear of corn can go from plant to BBQ in just a couple of minutes. We can season it in no time with salt and pepper, butter, or chili and lime. “Corn on the cob” may seem as American as apple pie–but is it? Geographically speaking, kind of (unlike the apple, which made its way here from Kazakhstan). Culturally, it gets way more complex and interesting. As the weather warms up and we begin planting age-old staple crops such as corn, wheat, and beans, let’s visit the legends and culture behind what might seem to be the most basic of foods. In 2nd, 4th and 5th grades, we explored this very thing.
In the Andean region of South America, the Inca civilization flourished on an agriculture of nutrient-dense maize (corn). Domesticated in Mesoamerica some 8,000 years ago, maize was grown by the Incas on a large scale, providing ample energy to build a mighty empire. Maize was also easily transported for trade by indigenous llamas; more on them in a minute. So why, at elevations over 10,000 feet, did maize do so well? Two main factors facilitated the boom, according to Alex Chepstow-Lustry of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, Peru (see this article). The first: a warming period. The second: llama poop. Chepstow-Lustry took mud cores from an Andean lake and found that high levels of maize pollen suddenly showed up 2,700 years ago. High levels of mite remains also appeared in the core–mites that feasted on animal dung. The core reveals that the Inca used llama dung for the organic fertilizer needed to grow maize so prolifically. Thus, a civilization prospered.
But there is so much more to staple crops than the scientific conditions that propel them. The Inca, like many indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, used maize for more than just sustenance. Spiritual offerings, legends, special fermented beverages used for ceremonies, the lore of maize origins–these things were very much attached to corn, this food that for many of us may initiate something as comparatively boring as BBQ cravings. In 5th grade we read a Penobscot legend called Corn Mother. The legend begins with Kloskurbeh, the All Maker, who lived on earth before there were people. One day his nephew appears, “born from the foam of the waves, foam quickened by the wind and warmed by the sun.” Another day, a woman appears, “born of the wonderful earth plant, and of the dew, and of warmth.” She and Kloskurbeh’s nephew marry and she becomes First Mother. As the population of earth increases, there is a shortage of food to be hunted. Bereaved at her children’s hunger, First Mother asks her husband to slay her, to have her sons drag her body over a patch of earth until her flesh covers the soil, and to bury her bones at the center of the clearing. “Wait seven moons and then come back, and you will find my flesh there, flesh given out of love, and it will nourish and strengthen you forever and ever.” She also advises them to not eat all of the flesh (kernels), but to return some to the ground so that future generations will be nourished.
These and thousands of other culture stories (which are also often lessons) remind us that food is so much more than the thing that makes us biochemically tick. Imagine that with every bite of food there is a whole world of ideologies and legends, a world of sacrifices and dead languages. They are all there, even if we can’t taste them.