Corn is the staple and basic food of Mexico. It's the place to begin this culinary journey. There's nothing in the food cultures of the rest of North America remotely comparable to the importance of corn in Mexico.
Corn was so important in the lives of the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs that it was elevated to a special role in the culture. Centéotl, the corn god, and Xilonen, goddess of the corn ear, played a primary role in pre-Conquest mythology and religious practices. In some Mexican villages, it's still customary to make offerings to the corn plant itself prior to planting. Farmers offer flowers, coffee, and aguardiente (a strong alcohol distilled from sugar cane) to the seed corn, along with prayers and songs specific to the occasion.
La planta del hombre de maíz (men of corn plant), wall painting at the Templo Rojo, Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala.
Another Mayan legend tells that when the gods had organized the earth, the water and the animals, they then turned to creating a being who would understand the goodness of life. First they tried molding a man of clay, but he was weak and inept. Then they attempted making a man and a woman of bark, but they lacked intelligence and gratitude. Finally the gods created beings whose flesh was made of corn and had the same colors as corn. These beings could think and could thank the gods that made them.
From that day forward--right up to the present moment--corn has been central to the Mexican diet and the Mexican way of life. Think of its infinite uses: the ubiquitous tortilla (a family of five might consume as much as a kilogram--2.2 pounds--of tortillas per person in the course of a day's meals), antojitos (little whims) made of nixtamal-ized corn, and an assortment of delicious preparations that ranges from the hundreds of varieties of tamales to tiny region-specific soup dumplings.
Corn can be yellow, white, blue, red, green, black, or a mix of various colors.
Any housewife can soak and boil the kernels, and then grind them into dough--that's the preparation and one use of nixtamal. She can cook the prepared whole kernels in rich soups. The variety of corn most often used in today's Mexico is cacahuatzintle, Nahuatl for--what else--corn. Cacahuatzintle produces large ears and soft, broad kernels and makes an excellent pozole, a rich soup traditionally prepared with nixtamal-ized corn kernels and pork meat. In Mexico, a whole cabeza de puerco (pig's head) is the foundation of the soup's broth.
No matter how humble, it's rare to find a meal in Mexico that does not include corn. For desayuno (breakfast), tamales. For comida (the main meal of the day), and for cena (late supper), corn's what's on the table, either as tortillas or as pozole or as rajas de chile poblano con crema y granos de maíz (poblano chiles strips with fresh corn kernels and cream), or any of a thousand dishes. We'll be talking much more about corn, this gift of Centéotl, as time goes by.
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