CORN, A native cereal first explored in 1492, leads the list of American foods that have conquered the world. On Nov.5, 1492, two members of Columbus' crew reported their first exploration of Cuba, talking of "a grain they called maiz which was well tasted, bak'd, dry'd, and made into flour." As other explorers examined the Americas, they found what we call corn (although in Europe corn means any cereal grain) growing vigorously from Canada in the north to Chile in the south, at sea level and in the high Andes.
Columbus took some home his first voyage. Not long after, the Dominican friars brought kernels from Mexico to show the Spaniards what the obstinate heathen ate. The Portuguese and Dutch carried corn to Africa, where they traded it for slaves. Barbary Coast pirates found it quite tasty, and from there the Turks scattered corn across North Africa to Constantinople and up the Balkans. In fact, in much of Europe, maize or corn was called Turkish wheat.
By the time European ships sailed to the China coast in the 16th century, corn was growing extensively and the emperor was taxing it. Presumably it had been introduced from Mecca and India by Chinese Moslems and traders returning home. But however corn got to China, its availability is considered a reason for the 17th-century population explosion there.
Although the American Indians used corn only to feed themselves -- they had practically no domesticated animals -- in other parts of the world corn took hold also as cattle fodder and chicken feed. Today, although certainly a cereal food, 90 percent of the enormous American crop is used as a feed grain which the world then consumes as milk, meat and eggs. In addition, a quarter of the foods on supermarket shelves include a refined corn product as starch and syrup to sweeten, color, flavor and texture everything from bakery goods to pickles. Corn products are widely used in industries other than food, including the production of gasahol for cars.
The corn the Indians used before the Europeans came to their lands had an astounding variety of shapes and colors. Kernels ranged in size from diminutive pointed popcorn to the giant disks of the cuzxo (South American) corn which could be eaten singly, like grapes. Kernels were red, blue, black, brown, pink, yellow in solid colors and stripes, bands and spots. But we moderns have reduced this variety to principally white and yellow, except for the braid of dried ears so many of us hang on our doors in the fall in a manner similar to that the Iroquois Indians used for hanging the crop to dry on their porches.
The rainbow of seeds and the many-colored stalks and leaves were the basis of decorations and artwork among American Indians and in other cultures as well. The Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian has a Japanese screen painted in the 1600s that uses the then-recently introduced corn plant as one of its major motifs. Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed columns with corn capitals for the entrance of the old Supreme Court library. Late 19th-century Americans grew corn in varied leaf colors for their flower gardens. And in New Orleans there are beautiful old wrough-iron fences designed like growing corn plants.
Corn has an enormous variety of uses. The seeds, grown in handy packages from 500 to 1,000, are edible and nutritious long before the plant has matured. The ears store well, and the seeds themselves need no threshing or winnowing when taken from the plant. However, corn must be resown by humans, since the plant itself cannot reproduce without help. The kernels are just too well packaged. They adhere tightly to the cob and are, as well, tightly wrapped in the multiple layers of husks. As well as food, housing, utensils and decoration, corn makes music -- being used in Indian gourd rattles. And poets rhapsodize about the sound of corn growing in the fields under the full moon.
Settlers in the New World learned to use corn as their daily bread and prepared it the way the Indians taught them: planting the crop in hills with beans and squashes; roasting the green corn; removing the hull with lye to make hominy. Although they would have preferred wheat for their bread, both its raw grain and flour traveled very poorly from Europe and it took many, many years to adapt European wheat, barley and rye to the climates and soils of North America. In the meantime, the settlers got to like corn bread in all its variations. And they invented bourbon.
We don't watch movies without our popcorn, a dish the Indians like as well. They also made the first crackerjack -- without the gift at the bottom of the box -- of popped corn covered with maple sugar or honey.
According to the writing of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun on the food of the Great Tenochtitlan, the gentlemen of Moctezuma's time ate "white tortillas, hot and folded over, made in a basket and covered with a white cloth." Tortillas are still prepared in about the same way, by soaking kernals of corn in a mixture of boiling water and cooking lime, and leaving to stand overnight. Then the skins are washed and the cleaned kernels ground on the metate or in a hand mill. The mix is formed into flat cakes and baked on a hot iron or stone.
In the 19th century, Western ingenuity developed processing for corn flour so that it could be stored for long periods. Recipes for its use often combined ingredients from the old world and the new, as the Indian Rice Cakes offered in an 1850 booklet extolling the Stafford milling process. They combined American cornmeal with Asian rice.
While the European Americans were adapting Indian recipes, the Indians were adopting European techniques. By 1910 the Seneca were running popped corn through a food chopper and eating the resultant meal with sugar and cream -- the Indian response to newly popular cornflakes, no doubt.
The Creoles in New Orleans added a touch of French -- and possibly a touch of whimsey as well -- to their corn preparation, Maque Choux (mock cabbage).
American ways with corn are used not only in America; at resorts like Lake Balaton in Hungary, roasted ears are sold from stands as snack food. In Shanghai they steam fresh corn at home, or roast it. They also buy popping corn and have a street vendor pop it for them in his special machine. And they combine with other vegetables. MAQUE CHOUX (Mock Cabbage) (8 servings) 3/4 cup chopped onions 3/4 cup bacon grease 10 ears fresh corn kernels, cut from the cob 4 fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1/3 cup minced green pepper 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon black pepper
Saute onions in bacon grease until transparent (about 5 minutes). Add corn and cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Add tomatoes and green pepper and cook 5 minutes more. Add salt and pepper. Maque Choux may be served as is or as stuffing for a cooked green pepper or tomatoe. YOUMEN DONGU ZHENZHUMI (Peking's Braised Winter Mushrooms and Corn) (4 servings) 1/4 cup dried Chinese black mushrooms 1 cup fresh corn kernels (or canned or frozen) 1 1/4 cups bouillon 1/4 cup minced cooked chicken or duck meat 6 tablesppons Oriental sesame oil 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons sherry 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon minced scallions 1 teaspoon minced ginger
Soak the mushrooms half a day or overnight 1/2 hour, then cut the stems off and wash clean. Put the corn and the boullion in a bowl that will not crack when exposed to live steam. Add the minced chicken or duck meat top the corn. wPlace the bowl on a rack in the steamer or a big pot so that the bowl is above the boiling water and the steamer or pot cover does not touch the top of the bowl. Steam until the corn is almost cooked, about 6 minutes.
Fry the sesame oil and sugar in the wok until they turn a reddish gold. Add the sherry, the previously steamed mixture, salt, onion and ginger. Fry until the ingredients have reached the boiling point, then braise, uncovered, over low heat for 10 minutes. Briefly turn the heat to high again to boil off the extra liquid. Serve, accompanied by rice.