An important food plant that is native to America, corn is thought to have originated in either Mexico or Central America. It has been a staple food in native civilizations since primitive times with some of the earliest traces of meal made from corn dating back about 7,000 years.
Corn has played and still continues to play a vital role in Native American cultures. It has been greatly honored for its ability to provide not only sustenance as food but shelter, fuel, decoration and more. Because of the vital role that corn played in the livelihood of many native cultures, it has been one of the important icons represented in the mythological traditions of the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations.
Traditional dishes made with corn often included a small amount of lime-not the fruit, but calcium oxide, the mineral complex that can be made by burning limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock that is composed of calcium carbonate and occurs naturally across the United States. This lime added to a cornmeal was generally obtained from the fire ash because a small amount of lime is produced simply from the burning of wood into ash. The reason for this process was simple: people seemed healthier when the pot ash was added. Now we know why. The niacin (vitamin B3) in corn is not readily available for absorption into the body, and lime helps free this B vitamin, making it available for absorption.
When Christopher Columbus and other explorers came to the New World, they found corn growing throughout the Americas, from Chile to Canada. It was consumed both as a vegetable and as a grain in the form of cornmeal seasoned and eaten as an accompaniment to vegetables, fish or meat. The corn that was prized was not just limited to the yellow and white kernel varieties that we know, but many other more popular varieties that featured kernels of red, blue, pink and black and were not only solidly colored, but spotted or striped.
Corn was brought back to Europe by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who later introduced it throughout the world. However, many of the European explorers coming over to North America ignored Native American traditions-including the pot ash tradition-and later fell victim to the vitmamin B3 deficiency disease called pellagra. Today, the largest commercial producers of corn include the United States, China, Brazil, Mexico and the Russian Federation.