People of the Corn

James Chatto, Toronto-based food writer and the editor of harry magazine

This staple crop, known as “the great mother,” fuelled the bodies and spirits of the ancient Maya

“You are what you eat.” Was there ever such nonsense spoken? If it were true, then pandas would be made of bamboo, for they eat nothing else, and koalas would be eucalyptus leaves. And yet it was almost true of the pre-Columbian Maya. Maize, in one form or another, mostly as tortillas, constituted about 85 percent of their diet at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Maya also believed that they had been created by the gods out of maize flour and water, quickened with a drop or two of divine blood. The gods needed people so that they could be worshipped and had tried making them out of other things before maize dough. The mud people just melted away; the stick people fled into the jungle and became monkeys, but the children of the corn got the job done, stirring up the sacred energy of the cosmos with bloodletting and other complex rituals.

Many aboriginal New World cultures refer to maize as female, the great mother, but throughout Mesoamerica maize was thought to have male and female characteristics, and this was true of the Classic Maya maize god, whose attributes changed from century to century and place to place. The plant itself was understood to be a gift from the gods to humankind, which we now know was not in fact the case. People created maize for themselves, domesticating a type of wild teosinte grass at least 9,000 years ago. By the time Columbus reached Cuba, corn cultivation had spread throughout the New World and the Spaniards were astonished at the vast, immaculately weeded, well-fertilized and irrigated fields they discovered, with bean vines climbing each corn stalk and squash growing between them.

Maize was just one of a myriad plants, animals, and infectious diseases that passed between the New and Old Worlds during the Columbian Exchange, but it has proved to be the most important. In her wonderful book Much Depends on Dinner Margaret Visser points out that corn is part of every single item in a modern American supermarket except freshly caught fish, present in everything from soap to insecticides, table salt, and instant coffee to cardboard and edible dyes. It is an inextricable part of modern life, but it’s nothing like as complex as the elaborate knot of physical and metaphysical reliance the Maya discerned between their maize, their gods, and themselves.

The Maya’s ancestors created maize; they also invented their gods and religion. They then devised stories that turned everything around, stories in which the gods created humans as well as maize. But even as the Maya were passing responsibility for their existence to their deities they were simultaneously taking on a different responsibility—that of sustaining the existence of their gods by worshipping them. Gods become extinct if not attentively cultivated and so does maize, which cannot reproduce itself from one crop to the next without people’s help drying, separating, and planting the kernels. Without maize, famine and death would come to the Maya. Without the Maya, their gods would cease to exist and all things seen and unseen in this interesting universe would implode into chaos and oblivion. None of us wants that to happen. Something to bear in mind the next time you eat a tortilla.

During Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World, c5 is offering a special Maya menu. Try a Maya spiced chocolate martini or for mains choose between kabocha squash tamales and pulled pork taco served with poblano relish. For a sweet finish with a kick, the churros are topped with Mexican chocolate sauce.