The corn people

Green Lifestyle Magazine

The longstanding relationship that Mexicans have with corn is being eroded by the threat of genetic modification. Richard Cornish chronicles their fight back with an ancient corn tortilla chain.

Girl carrying corn

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Ana Rodriguez is a weaver. She lives in the vibrant village of Valle de Teotitlan in a valley just to the south of Oaxaca in central Mexico. In her arms she carries a basket of corn her uncle grew, in a basket her aunt wove, to the town miller. “My uncle grew this and other corns just over the hill,” she says. She has been learning English and loves to speak it at every opportunity. She is well educated as is her mother and aunt. They are clever business people making rugs and dying them on the rooftop studio of the squat square house. They use cochineal beetles for red, marigold for yellow and the leaves of indigo for blue.

When Ana returns from the miller her basket is heavy with ‘masa’, corn dough. With this her mother shapes tortillas with her hands. Despite centuries of Christianity some Mexicans believe that they too were moulded from corn dough by the creation gods Tepeu and Gucumatz. Ana’s mother grills the tortillas on the ‘comal’, an earthenware plate, as Mexicans have done since corn was domesticated in this valley 4500 years ago.

“Maize is a metaphor for us a nation,” says Amado Ramirez. He is co-founder of Itanoni, a tortilla café in Oaxaca that champions real Mexican corn, or maize. “Mexican corn is under threat,” he says. “Here it is grown on ‘la milpas’.” These are little farms where corn and beans and other vegetables are grown in a sustainable manner, using animal labour, he explains. The animals form part of the fertility cycle manuring the fields as they work. The types of corn grown are multivarieties, some particular to one valley. He orders some quesadillas from the kitchen. Ramirez explains that Mexico has been swamped by subsidised corn from the US. “The problem is that it is bland in flavour and colour,” he says. “It is the colour in corn (anthocyans) that make it healthy,” he adds. “American corn just makes you fat.” He points to discussions about the transfer of genetically modified (GM) genes in pollen from GM corn crops in Mexico making their way into ancient varieties of corn. “This is our heritage,” he says. “This is our very flesh and blood.”

Three tortillas arrive. Hot and fresh from the comal they are intense and aromatic, and made from ancient corn varieties they are pale blue, deep orange and intense yellow. Perhaps the best tortillas you can buy in all of Mexico.

Back at the Rodriguez household Maria and Ana are shaping balls of corn dough into thin flat discs. These they ladle with a little ‘mole amarillo’ – a yellow sauce made from tomatoes, chilies and spices. They fold these up into a corn leaf, tie it together with a little of the corn husk and place it in a steamer. These are the local version of tamales. Ana throws a handful of cornhusks onto the fire. Soon the tamales are ready. Soft and nutty, the sauce a little sweet and sour with a kick of pulverised chili grown in la milpa. They are truly delicious. “We eat corn every day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snacks in between,” says Ana. “We Mexicans,” she says. “We are what we eat.”

Richard Cornish is an award-winning food writer who explores where our food comes from, how it is made and how it is enjoyed.