A lot of people call it “life itself,” “the source of life,” or “sacred mother corn.” Corn can be used for more than just cooking.

Native Cooking: Corn Fritters and A Brief History of the Indigenous Staple

Dale Carson

A lot of people call it “life itself,” “the source of life,” or “sacred mother corn.” The Aztec Corn Goddess is Chicomecoatl. To the Aztec, Mayan and Incan peoples it is called mahiz, “our life.

The history of corn dates back some 7,000 years. It is thought to have descended from wild grass in Central America. In the 1950s, anthropologists found fossilized corn pollen that was 80,000 years old and they found tiny ears which carbon dated to 5,000 B.C. There is evidence of corn farming in the Southwest United States in 1,200 B.C. but it took a few more centuries to reach the northeast United States.

The corn brought to Europe by the conquistadors, mainly the Portuguese, spread quickly to many countries. Few other foods are as exclusively Native American as corn. In fact, Native American methods of preservation and farming are so advanced most are still in use today. You will never find corn growing in the wild because corn is dependent on human distribution and not self-sowing. One of the earliest ways to plant it was in a mound with three fish for fertilizer. Squash was planted between the corn plants so its large leaves could shade the ground to help keep the ground moist.

There are five major varieties of corn—flint, dent, sweet, pop, flour. Today, many of these varieties have been botanically bred to retain more sugar. Most people seem to prefer sweet corn, the sweeter the better, but our family prefers the large deep yellow corn kernels on a large cob, affectionately called “cow corn,” which appears later in the season than sweet corn. As a near complete food, nutritionists like that it is high in fiber, vitamins, and has especially high concentrations of antioxidant carotenoids.

Don’t think of corn as just another pretty grain. There are over 3,000 uses for corn products. Husks make brooms, baskets, dolls, tamales, and stuffing for mattresses. Cobs can be fish bobs, fuel, scrub brushes, toilet paper, insulation, pipes, and bottle stoppers. Corn starch is even more versatile, it is used in paint, papermaking, cosmetics, medicines, ink, film, toothpaste, plastics and many more items. One third of corn by-products become feed for livestock and many pet foods.

Corn fritters are just one of the many foods that can be made with corn. (iStock)

Crispy Corn Fritters

1 ½ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 shakes fresh ground pepper

1 egg

½ cup milk

1 tablespoon melted butter

2 cups corn kernels

Vegetable oil for frying

Combine all ingredients together, add corn last and drop into hot oil. Fry until brown on both sides.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: “New Native American Cooking,” “Native New England Cooking” and “A Dreamcatcher Book.” She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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