A photo tribute to Mexican corn

Criollo corn in Milpa Alta, Mexico City.

Criollo corn in Milpa Alta, Mexico City.

There’s a saying in Mexico: sin maíz, no hay país. It means without corn, there is no country.

This isn’t really an overstatement — corn has been domesticated in Mexico since at least 2,500 B.C., and it’s still the most important ingredient in the Mexican diet. Corn is used in everything from tortillas to soups and beverages, and the husks (and occasionally fresh corn leaves, when in season) are used to wrap tamales. I’ve even had charred cornsilk in certain types of atole.

Mexico is connected to corn in a way that I can’t fathom as an American who grew up in California. But living in Mexico for four years, I developed a deep appreciation for corn and its history, and its array of colors and textures. Taking pictures of Mexican corn seemed like a natural thing, in my eyes. How else do you capture a thing of beauty?

Here’s a small selection of corn photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite corn dish in the comments!

Shedding the papery skins of dried blue corn, to prepare it for nixtamal

Shedding the papery skins of dried blue corn, to prepare it for nixtamal

Sopa de milpa -- corn, squash, and squash blossoms -- at a restaurant in Puebla.

Sopa de milpa — corn, squash, and squash blossoms — at a restaurant in Puebla.

Elote cacahuazintle, a variety of corn that's often dried and used in pozole.

Elote cacahuazintle, a variety of corn that’s often dried and used in pozole.

Nixtamalized corn -- that's dried corn treated with calcium hydroxide -- in Hidalgo, Mexico.

Nixtamalized corn — that’s dried corn treated with calcium hydroxide — in Hidalgo, Mexico.

Purple corn husks!

Purple corn husks!

Elote desgranado, or fresh shucked corn, at the Tuesday market in Santiago Tianguistenco, Estado de México.

Elote desgranado, or fresh shucked corn, at the Tuesday market in Santiago Tianguistenco, Estado de México.

Fresh huitlacoche, still on the cob, also at the Tuesday Santiago Tianguistenco market.

Fresh huitlacoche, still on the cob, also at the Tuesday Santiago Tianguistenco market.

Blue corn esquites with epazote in San Pedro Atocpan, Mexico City.

Blue corn esquites with epazote in San Pedro Atocpan, Mexico City.

Fresh, shucked criollo corn in Milpa Alta, Mexico City.

Fresh, shucked criollo corn in Milpa Alta, Mexico City.

Salting elote near the Alameda Central, Mexico City.

Salting elote near the Alameda Central, Mexico City.

A huitlacoche quesadilla, mixed with corn, at a street stand in Mexico City.

A huitlacoche quesadilla, mixed with corn, at a street stand in Mexico City.

Corn husks drying under the sun, in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

Corn drying in the sun in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

Reyna Mendoza toasts corn on a comal, in Teotiitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

Reyna Mendoza toasts corn on a comal, in Teotiitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

Grilled elotes at a street stand in Mexico City.

Grilled elotes at a street stand in Mexico City.

A mural depicting corn stalks in Cacaxtla, a Mesoamerican city in Tlaxcala that flourished between the 7th and 10th centuries.

A mural depicting corn stalks (with human heads for the ears!) in Cacaxtla, an archaeological site in Tlaxcala that flourished between the 7th and 10th centuries.

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13 Responses to “A photo tribute to Mexican corn”
  1. Lauren

    This is such a beautiful post Lesley! The colored corns are gorgeous, as is the huitlacoche (which I have never tried). I can’t wait to visit someday and see all of this in person.

    • Lesley

      Thank you, Lauren! Hope you get to try huitlacoche someday — it’s one of my favorites.

  2. Regina

    For every mexican, atole is a familiar brevage made with corn but recently I just tried “Tejuino” a refreshing brevage that is made also with corn,sweeten with piloncillo, lemon and lots of ice. You have to try it!

    • Lesley

      Thanks for the tip, Regina! I’ve heard of Tejuino but haven’t tried it. It looks like I should be able to find it in California — I’ll try some the next time I’m there.

  3. Hola Lesley! Muchos extranjeros no alcanzan a dimensionar que el maíz es un cultivo que ha coevolucionado con el hombre mesoamericano, sin el uno no existiría el otro. De ahí también ñla sagrada concepción del maíz para nosotros mexicanos mesoamericanos pues no hay ningun otro grano en el mundo que requiera de la participación humana para su reproducción. Es esta particularidad lo que lo hace tan nuestro. Las primeras mazorcas de teocintle no tenían cubierta de hoja y eran unas de modesta proporción y tamaño, el cuidadoso y meticuloso escoger de granos para su reproducción dieron un cultivo que hoy tiene entre 12 y 25 hojas exteriores cubriendole, que sin importar si cae a tierra, no se reproducirá si no está seco el grano, elegido entre los de la cintura y seleccionado como los mejores, deshojadas las mazorcas, y luego elegida la fecha y ciclo agrícola. No cualquiera, hay de dos meses, de 3, de temporal y de riego, de colores diversos y de tipos distintos. Tantos como 59 variedades. Y es también Mesoamérica el sitio de orígen del endoesperma del maíz. De ahi que además de la preponderancia en la dieta las bebidas, las tortillas y las infinidad de expresiones culinarias del maíz, el decir: SIN MAÍZ NO HAY PAÍS se refiere primoridalmente al cuidado de las empresas como MONSANTO que ha traído maices genéticamente modificados (GMO) que no solo tienen evidencia de daño en la salud, sino que terminarán por arruinar nuestras razas originales desarrolladas por mas de 30 siglos de historia. EL maíz es al mexicano su escencia mas preciada y si somos lo que comemos, somos el Pueblo del Máiz. No hay un solo indígena mexicano que se le tire un grano de maíz y no lo recoja con reverencia e incluso le pida perdón.El maíz es tratado como persona, duerme por ejemplo. Nunca se hace nixtamal de noche.
    Esto y mucho mas de lo que no es evidente es la Cultura Culinaria Mesoamericana para lo que te espero cualquier día en el Gastrotour Prehispánico de Malinalco, a aprender de los ritos y significados detrás.

    • Lesley

      Hola Adriana: Muchas gracias por tu comentario. Me encantaría tomar uno de tus tours. Te contacto por Facebook la próxima vez que pase por México. Saludos.

  4. Stella

    I love these photos, Lesley! What a great tribute. Can’t wait to show my mom your post. She’ll love it.

    • Lesley

      Thanks lady! I’m glad you liked it, and I hope your mom does, too. Un abrazo!

  5. Stef Arochi

    i absolutely LOVE these photos! Missing huitlacoche since it cannot be found ANYWHERE in Las Vegas. Guess I shall have to wait till I visit the mainland in October.

    Cacahuazintle is very true to Toluca. One of my mom’s favorite things in life.

    Stef

    • Lesley

      Thanks Stef! Really glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Michel

    Hi, After 7 years of living in Mexico, I love the corn, the beans and the tortillas! Great photos, never saw some of those corn!

  7. Alejandro

    Wow great pictures, I had not noticed how much corn we do consume and how varied it is. I am from Michoacan, I was brought to California at the age of three, but I would visit my grandparents near Morelia. Surrounding Michoacan is a strong indigenous influence one thing I always seeked out was uchepos. They’re sweet custardy, creamy, masa, tamales wrapped in a green corn husk accompanied with a plain atole blanco. The best tamal type of food I’ve had is the chapata, I honestly don’t know how it’s made but I guess it’s purple corn, and blackberries. It’s wrapped in the dried yellow corn husk, its about the size of a softball, spongy, sweet, almost gummy, also accompanied with atole blanco. Someone in Mexico send me some, I will pay handsomely.

    A.R.G.

    • Lesley Tellez

      I love uchepos. I hadn’t heard of the chapata, though — purple corn and blackberries sounds fascinating. I miss Michoacán.

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