Maize culture, Mexico

Virtually every dish in the Mexican cuisine uses maize one way or another, and its fundamental importance in Mexico’s kitchen and culture can be traced up to 8000 BC.

Maize ears and seed of the Mexican landrace "Conico Norteño".

It all started with the domestication of a wild grass called teosinte, in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley. There, natives selected the most suitable specimens for eating and cultivating, gradually altering the plant to become better at producing food through generations of selection and improvement, which at some point gave rise to the modern maize, with bigger kernels and more yield per plant.

From there, Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilisations kept on improving and speciating this plant. Later, the development of the nixtamalization process was crucial to spread its intensive use in the Aztec kitchen and favoured its expansion all throughout Mesoamerica.

Mexican maize ears collection

As maize was critical for the Aztec’s survival (when there were floods or droughts that affected the crop it was a disaster), it spawned deities and religious celebrations to favor a proper harvesting. They worshipped and celebrated the different stages in the plant’s life with festivals and offerings.

Maize god was called Cinteotl, and it was shown as young man, while young fresh corn was portrayed as a young woman named Chicomecóatl, or Xilonen (“the hairy one”, attributed to the hairs on unshucked maize). She had another feminine form, called Cihuacóatl, the name of the old corn goddess, when the seeds were dried. Every September, this goddess received a sacrifice of a girl, decapitated. The sacrifice’s blood was poured on the goddess statue and her skin worn by a priest.

A related god was Xipe Totec (‘our lord the flayed one’), a life-death-rebirth deity, which also made him the god of agriculture, the West, diseases, spring, goldsmiths and the seasons. He flayed himself to give food to humanity, a parallelism the Aztecs related to the maize seed losing its husk during nixtamalization.

Cipactli, the Aztec earth creature, sprouting ears of corn
Cipactli, the Aztec earth creature, sprouting ears of corn

In the Precontact America, almost everything was made from corn, including alcoholic beverages;, and with beans, vegetables, fruit, chilies and salt it made a complete diet with no need for animal protein. Even the formation of the Aztec Empire can be credited to maize as a unifying element: the three state cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan formed an alliance that later led to formation of the Aztec Empire on the foundations of corn harvesting and trade.

Triple Alliance flag

It is obvious that Aztecs took this plant very seriously as they survival, society and culture depended on and nourished from it. Maize not only generated a full pantheon of bloodthirsty gods and was a gravitational element in their diet, but also it structured a culture and economic system around it that lasted until nowadays.

Maize still is the staple food of Mexico, present at almost every meal in the same many ways Aztecs did centuries ago, with little change. There are no gods anymore, but its importance in the Mexican kitchen and culture remains intact.

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