food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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I start with an admission. My decision to write about maize (zea mays), or corn, forced me to refocus my sights. My first love remains Italy but having just returned from a fabulous visit to a remarkable country – Ecuador – I just had to muse on its bounty. Guanabana proved too much of challenge, so maize it is…. besides corn led me to the Veneto and polenta!

Corn seller in Otavalo, Ecuador

Corn seller in Otavalo, Ecuador

Cultivated by the Olmec and the Mayans (who had at least seven varieties), maize (together with beans and potatoes) was a staple for the inhabitants of the Americas. Its importance is perhaps best conveyed by depictions of it and the Maize God as well as by the survival of cooking tools for its grating.
(For the Maize God, see Mary Miller and Marco Samayoa, “Where maize may grow: Jade, chacmods, and the Maize God,” RES, vol. 33 (1998), pp. 54-77, and Karl Taube, “The Olmec Maize God: The Face of Corn in Formative Mesoamerica,” RES, vol. 29/30 (1996), pp. 39-81.)
Museo del Banco Central, Quito, Ecuador

Museo del Banco Central, Quito, Ecuador

Those dwelling in North America before Europeans invaded its shores were no less dependent upon the crop. Located near the middle of the high-desert of north-central New Mexico, Chaco Canyon – a remarkable site that was at its height in the 11th century – was connected to other communities through a network of roads that crossed some 60,000 kilometers. Scholars are not of one voice concerning the function of the Chaco Canyon complex. It could have been political, economic, ritualistic, etc. If there is uncertainty about Chaco’s purpose there is no question that corn was transported across the Chacoan road system. (http://www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm)

When in 1607 the English settlers sailed up the Chesapeake Bay then turned northwest into the James River with the intent of establishing a prosperous colony they saw fields of maize along the riverbank. John Smith commented on it in “A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents as Hath Happened in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony,” 1608. (Growing-up in Virginia, I used to play within the maze of the cornfield that was behind my house.) Like other crops grown in the Americas – peanuts, tobacco, chili peppers, manioc, cashews, pineapples, etc. – maize made its way quickly into the trade routes that Alfred Crosby, Jr. dubbed the Columbian Exchange. The cultivation of maize soon found its way to China. (Crosby, “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492”)
 Tracing routes of the Columbian Exchangem
Maize seems to have entered Italian cuisine as coarsely ground meal. Shortly after 1500, ground corn replaced millet and other grains in the making of polenta. According to Clifford Wright, maize arrived in the Veneto through the intervention of Pietro Martire d’Angera, who, “in 1494, had brought a few seeds, given to him as a gift in Madrid, straight from Columbus, by the Milanese Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.” Like other plants, its medicinal properties were touted. In “Discorsi di pedacio Discoride Anazarbeo della material medicinale,” 1559, Pierandrea Mattioli noted, “the ‘Indiani’ sow this grain, and call it Mahiz.” (See Wright, “A Mediterranean Feast,” p. 615)

With the impoverished hunger of Puchinella in mind, I close with a brief note on ‘Cres’tajat,” (or Maltagliati), a pasta corta made of wheat flour, corn flour and water… or simply of lukewarm water kneaded with leftover polenta. In cases of extreme poverty such as that exemplified by Pulchinello, this type of pasta was on some occasions made with the leftover bits of cornmeal stuck on the sides of the copper pot, or “paiolo,” in which polenta was traditionally made. The pasta was then served with “lardo” in which wild herbs had been fried. In the region around Pesaro ‘Cred’tajat’ continues to be eaten on the Feast of Saint Constantius (September 23). The hungry Pulcinello would have been