It is unknown what led to its widespread domestication, because the variety available at the time had kernels that were too small and hard to be eaten off the cob. Early corn eaters developed a process known as nixtamalization, which transforms the thick, hull-encased kernels to dense, chewy kernels that can be used for a variety of food preparations. The kernels are cooked in alkaline water (made with lime or wood ash) until the hulls can be rubbed off, allowing the corn to expand when cooked (the product is known as hominy). The Native Americans traditionally used a wooden mortar and pestle to grind the soft kernels into a coarse meal, which could then be used to make soups, puddings and breads. Colonists in America quickly learned from the Native Americans about corn agriculture and corn became an important food source.
In Mexico, hominy kernels add a chewy texture to many traditional Mexican soups and stews. It can also be easily formed into a dough to make fresh masa. When fresh masa is dried and ground into a very fine flour it is known as masa harina. Masa is used to make the delicious corn tortillas and tamales of Mexico, as well as to thicken one of my all-time favorite sauces, mole!
The type of corn used to make hominy is known as dent corn or field corn. In the United States, this corn is grown in abundance for animal feed. (FYI: this defies many laws of nature, altering the diets of animals that were not designed to feed exclusively on corn. The results are nutritionally inferior animal products and less healthy/happy animals). Popcorn is another type of corn that is grown for you guessed it...popcorn. Sweet corn is the popular vegetable that we all enjoy during the late summer and fall months.
An important note about nixtamalization: what is most extraordinary about the process is that it affects the protein structure of the corn so that the corn’s bound niacin is released into a free form that can be readily absorbed. This essential amino acid is important to prevent pellagra. Had the corn been processed by methods other than nixtamalization, niacin deficiency would have weakened many populations. This affirms my belief that traditional ways of eating are almost always best. Through a long process of trial and error, regional diets and food traditions evolved to sustain populations optimally. In the words of one of my favorite authors, Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma):
“I’m inclined to think any traditional diet will do; if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around”
Someday, I would like to try and make my own hominy by soaking the kernels in lime water and washing off the hulls, but canned or dried hominy is convenient and a fine substitute. Here is a simple and healthy recipe I came up with using the traditional flavors of Mexican posole.
Green Hominy Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
½ large bunch coarsely chopped Swiss chard (greens and stems)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 (29-ounce) can hominy, drained and rinsed
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Shredded green cabbage
Chopped white onion
Heat oil in heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and Swiss chard; sauté until onion is translucent and chard is wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and chile powder; stir 1 minute.
Stir in broth and hominy; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 25 minutes. Stir in oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into large soup bowls. Serve with plenty of garnish and warm tortillas.