Maize (from the American Indian word mahiz), is more commonly known in the English-speaking world as corn. Corn as an English term originally denoted small kernels of something, particularly a grain, and the word was eventually re-lexicalized to denote what it denotes today.

Corn was domesticated by the indigenous populations of the Americas in pre-Columbian times. The Andean Indians were the first to introduce corn to Central America, sometime around 10,000-5500 B.C. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations first cultivated maize in Mesoamerica—the land stretching from central Mexico into the northwest regions of Central America—sometimes between 8000 and 5000 B.C. Corn did not arrive in the present-day United States, however, until about 600 A.D., when archeologists can officially date the mass-cultivation of the crop in North America. By 1700 AD, it was the staple crop of many Mesoamerican, pre-Columbian North American, South American, and Caribbean cultures.

Corn was born American: It was not introduced in Europe until the late 15th and early 16th centuries, after European explorers to the New World were able to transport the grain back to their home countries. It was not widely grown in Asiatic countries, in fact, until the 18th century. Corn continues to be American: It is currently the most widely grown crop in the Americas with 332 million metric tons grown annually in the United States alone, or 42.5% of the entire world’s harvest.

Obviously, then, corn is pan-American, and therefore, pan-Southern. It is a dietary and material staple for populations all over the American map. Indians used corn husks to weave clothing, baskets, and children’s toys. Modern American farmers use much of their corn crop as animal fodder. American industry uses corn in products ranging from ethanol fuels and cosmetics to shoe polish and glue adhesives. Even the medical industry uses corn proteins in certain medications.

The Genus ZeaEdit

Zea is a genus of plants technically characterized as a group of grasses. The one domesticated strand of Zea, however, happens to be one of the most common edible plants in modern America—Zea mays, or corn. Zea, therefore, is an umbrella term that encompasses all varieties of corn, from Georgia Blue to Arkansas Red varieties.

Corn comes in many types, each classified under the Zea genus and each associated with a certain usage. Most commonly consumed by Americans is Sweet Corn, named for its high sugar content and filling the farm crates of roadside stands as well as the bins of supermarkets in virtually every state. Sweet corn, often referred to as Table corn, is not often used for anything but direct human consumption. Dent corn, or Field Corn, is higher in starch and lower in sugar than the Sweet variety and is often used as livestock feed or in the production of industrial products such as plastics and ethanol fuels. Flint corn, characterized by hard outer kernel shell (“hard as flint,” some say) and a range of kernel colors from red to white to black, is known in America today as Indian corn and is used in industrial production as well as for ornamental purposes. Flour corn is most often grown in blue or white varieties and is used most commonly in baking because the kernel is soft and starch-filled, making it easy to grind into a flour. Finally, Popcorn, a subset of Flint corn, combines the elements of both the Flour and Flint varieties. It has a soft, starchy center that when heated, releases its moisture in the form of steam. The steam builds up enough to cause the hard shell to burst open and the starchy center to puff up into the fluffy stuff many Americans consume as a treat in movie theatres from Portland to Pensacola.

The artifacts seen here are from the Louisiana-based restaurant Zea. Note that the name of the restaurant discreetly implies an aspiration toward a saliency similar to corn in the American diet and the American market. The restaurant first opened in 1999 in Harahan, Louisiana and has since expanded to 13 locations across the American South and Southwest. Its three founding chefs, Hans Limburg, Greg Reggio, and Gary Darling, continue to garner culinary clout with accolades from hoards of regional newspapers, Gambit polling sources, and restaurant associations.