“They Eat a Lot of Corn”
SOME years ago an American health expert went to southern Ecuador to observe some natives who are reported to be among the longest-living people in the western hemisphere. “Some of the ‘viejos,’ as they are called in their native Spanish, told me they were 132 . . . 127 . . . 113 years of age,” she reported. “Their longevity and their health were equally astonishing.” What was their secret? “I wasn’t sure I knew a single answer,” she wrote. “But then, to give one possible clue, I suggested, not altogether in jest: They eat a lot of corn.”
This interesting anecdote shows that corn, or maize, is still a staple food for people in many parts of the world and that it can be a significant part of a healthful diet. If corn is part of your diet, knowing something about the background and the characteristics of the crop may help you in making better use of this versatile plant.
The “Grain That Built a Hemisphere”
Maize was grown originally only in the western hemisphere. When Christopher Columbus first set foot in America, the natives had already been cultivating their máhiz and using it as their staple food for centuries. In fact, it has been said that the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas of Central and South America owed their culture to the abundant yields of maize. Good harvests allowed them leisure time for weaving, pottery making and the building of highways, pyramids and cities. For this reason, maize has been called the “grain that built a hemisphere.”
The explorers took it to Europe. From there it spread to Africa and on to Asia. Today, a crop of maize matures every month of the year somewhere in the world. From high in the Peruvian Andes to below sea level in the Caspian plain, from Canada in the far north to New Zealand down south, maize has become the most widely distributed food plant on earth.
Types of Maize
You may be familiar with yellow or white maize, but do you know that there are red, brown, blue, purple and even multicolored kinds? Indeed, over a hundred varieties of corn are found worldwide. Some of them have special properties that make them particularly suitable for certain conditions or uses.
For example, flint corn grows more readily in colder regions because it ripens in less time, and it is resistant to weevils. Flour, or soft, corn, on the other hand, was a favorite of the American Indians because the kernels contain mostly soft starch and are easily ground into flour, or meal, by hand.
Other types include dent corn, a high-yield variety that is commercially important. Each kernel has a characteristic dent at the top that results from uneven drying of hard and soft starch in the seed. Sweet corn and popcorn are what might be called fancy varieties. When a popcorn kernel is heated, the moisture inside expands, causing the kernel to explode, or pop, to some 30 times its original size. The sweetness that you taste in corn on the cob, or sweet corn, is due to its containing about twice as much sugar as other types.
It is also possible to obtain a combination of some of these qualities by means of hybrid seeds. For instance, one hybrid has a short growing time like flint corn but the eating quality of sweet corn. So a grower can select the type that suits his particular needs and circumstances. In fact, most of the corn produced today is grown in this way.
Food for Millions
A juicy ear of sweet corn, dripping with melted butter and flavored with salt is a treat hard to resist. Possibly it is one of your favorites. Or maybe you eat corn in the form of flakes, chips, mush, porridge, chowder or fritters. Perhaps you use cornmeal in baking bread, biscuits, tortillas, tamales or waffles. Most likely you also use corn oil, corn starch or corn syrup in a variety of foods. The fact is that corn, or maize, is used by millions of people around the world in a delightful variety of foods.
People who live exclusively on maize, however, are said to be particularly susceptible to pellagra, a disease marked by skin, intestinal and nervous disorders. This is because the protein in corn lacks some of the essential amino acids, or building blocks of proteins, and this deficiency, when prolonged, leads to the disease.
Some nutritionists feel that the problem is aggravated when processed corn or a corn product, rather than the whole grain, is eaten, as is the case in many parts of the world today. The experience with the viejos seems to bear this out, because they eat what they grow rather than depend on imports from industrialized nations. However, their diet also includes other sources of protein, such as nuts, beans and, occasionally, eggs and chicken. Likewise, in some parts of Africa, the custom of eating mopani worms or thick milk or meat with maize porridge helps in achieving a more balanced diet.
Grow Your Own
With food prices on the rise daily, growing your own may be rewarding in more than one way. Where soil and climate are suitable, a ton of maize can be raised on a sixth of a hectare (0.4 a.), enough to keep a large family in basic food for a year. Even with a small kitchen garden, raising your own maize could save you considerable expense and provide the family with a delightful treat.
Maize should be planted in blocks, or squares, rather than long rows. This will promote maximum pollination, which results in fully developed ears. The plant is a heavy user of soil nutrients, so it is advisable to use a different plot in the garden each year or to rotate the site of various crops. A very practical method is to plant corn at the corners of two-foot-square (60 cm) grids and grow a leguminous crop in the space in between. The “intercrop” enriches the soil, and the cornstalks serve as support for the legume—a very happy situation indeed.
If you are planting to provide corn on the cob, you can stretch out the period you will be able to enjoy it by staggering your planting times. And if you are careful to obtain good seeds and to fertilize the soil, you will find yourself bountifully repaid when the time comes to enjoy the crop.