Hold On To That Juicy Ear of Corn

In a couple weeks, we’ll end our summer with Labor Day festivities — hopefully, including Covid-free cookouts. There’ll be burgers and kebabs, Mom’s secret-recipe potato salad, watermelon, and roasted corn on the cob.

But — before you bite into that luscious, butter-slathered ear, think about where it came from … And I don’t mean the farmer’s market or the grocery store.

Corn was first domesticated from wild grasses in central Mexico some 6,000 years ago. There wasn’t much to eat on the two-inch-long cobs.

Two thousand years later, maize first entered the American Southwest. Cobs were about five inches long and had 12 to 14 rows of difficult to grind hard kernels.

Corn took several more centuries to evolve into 7-inch-long cobs with softer kernels that were easier to grind.

This is the maize that helped ancient New Mexicans transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Their use of the plant — and its yield — depended on changing environmental conditions from wet years to droughts.

At the Cañada Alamosa archaeological site, near Monticello, New Mexico, about a hundred miles north of Las Cruces, scientists discovered 4,000-year-old corn cobs, making it one of the oldest corn sites in the Southwest.

They found evidence of corn agriculture along the creek bed and on canyon terraces, indicating attempts to maximize yields by planting in various locations.

Modern corn — the kind you’re now looking at and hoping I’ll stop telling this story so you can eat it — is much more complicated. It has gone through generations of breeding experiments to dispel pests and increase yields. It has even been genetically engineered. We grow 96-million acres of corn in the U.S. to feed ourselves, to feed our livestock and, as ethanol, to feed our cars.

So there. Now you have an idea where corn came from in the Americans, go ahead. Chomp into that ear. And buen apetito.