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Corn, Corny, Corniest

In her book “California Mission Recipes”, Bess A. Cleveland mentions Nixtamal.  This is a recipe for creating the basic foundation for making tortillas.  Nixtamal is a partially-cooked corn, much like hominy.  If you don’t know what hominy (which my spell check didn’t recognize.) is, you did not grow up during the 30’s.  Nixtamal is then dried and ground.  By adding water to make a dough consistency you create Masa.  Masa kneaded and made into balls, then flattened, and pan-fried become tortillas.  From Nixtamal you can make atole and pinole.  All of these derivatives from nixtamal formed the basic foundations of food eaten by the mission residents.


The reason that I bring this up is that during the research for our book, “The Historical Gardens of the California Missions,” corn is constantly being mentioned.  As with many things in our research you open one door only to find another two or three more doors.  I thought I would share some of the facts that might just give corn a little more respect.  Even though today we celebrate ethanol (as derivative of corn) as an additive to our gas in place of MTBE corn is very basic to the way we live. 


Corn is a grass that is native to the northern hemisphere.  The native population grew corn and introduced it to Columbus.  He introduced corn to Spain and ultimately all of Europe.  It was commercially produced in the new world by the Spanish and most importantly by the missionaries. Although many of the native tribes grew corn in parts of Mexico it became a mainstay of the missionary diet as they came to California.  


Corn is a ten billion dollar crop in the United States.  It is the mainstay of food for people, food for livestock, and many other products in industry.  Among some of the uses for food we have baking powder, breakfast foods, cooking oil, flour, ice cream, margarine, puddings, salad dressings, syrups, vinegar, and yeast.  The main use for animals is silage, but also corn bran, corn meal, fodder, oil cake and meal.  It really made me think when I found that it was used in many manufactured products.  I have already mentioned ethanol, but here is a partial list of its uses in industrial goods:  Adhesives, antifreeze, ceramics, cork substitute, dyes, explosives, felt, fertilizer, paint, photographic film, safety glass, soaps, solvents, fibers, varnishes, and most importantly whiskey.  It is also now a recommended component of gasoline.


I do have a problem with this success.  Ten billion dollars is a fairly substantial part of our national income.  It necessitates the concentration of a single crop over large areas and once you start growing one crop, you are asking for problems.  Once an insect or disease enters what we call a mono-crop it runs rampant.  Once this happens and chemical sprays are introduced and what defense the plants had from beneficial organisms is eliminated.  The wine industry in California should take note of this.


When Bev and I traveled to Chicago last year, I noticed a totally different mid-west than I had experienced in my military train trip in the 50’s.  The corn was still there, but there had been an introduction of several different crops that were rotated so that insects and diseases were controlled, not by chemicals, but by depriving insects and diseases of their source of food.  Most insect species are crop specific.  By that I mean they usually only go for one particular variety of plant.  When you rotate the crop, they die because they starve to death.


Most of the benefits of this were made possible with the popularity of soybeans and other cash crops that these insects do not find appetizing. These other crops furnish the farm owner with alternatives.  Corn can still be their main cash crop, but these other crops are for cash as well so that the farmer can still pay his bills.  They also get some free fertilizer from these soybeans as well.


Next time you are in a movie theater and have some popcorn, the extra “butter” they put on may well have come the same crop, corn.

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