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Amazing maize: Indian corn travels the world

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Summer's golden joy, corn on the cob, is a recent pleasure. Through history, most of the corn grown in the Americas was used for animal feed or ground into corn products such as cornmeal or masa, a lye-treated ground corn used for tortillas and tamales.

The first maize discovered by members of Christopher Columbus' exploring party was found in what is now Cuba. According to James Traeger in "The Food Chronology," they described it as "a sort of grain they call maize, which was well tasted, bak'd, dry'd, and made into flour."

Little did Columbus know that this grain was just one of more than 700 varieties that had been growing in South and Central America, tamed by the Incas and Aztec Indians. Columbus brought maize seeds back to Spain, where the plants were called Indian corn.

In the early 1500s corn made its way from Spain to Portugal, Crete and Turkey, then from Turkey to England. Corn was introduced to China by the Portuguese. It was more quickly adopted there than in Europe.

The early North American Indians dried corn kernels for use in stews and soups. And the Pilgrims learned new dishes such as succotash, hominy and pone from the Indians, according to Traeger.

But they didn't eat it off the cob, like we do today. Or baked into a rich, cheesy casserole like the accompanying recipe.

Types of corn •Flint: Used by Native Americans in a dried form...Its small grains and hard skin were not a problem after the corn was rehydrated and cooked.•Flour corn: Also called soft corn, this type has large ears with starchy grains and often is used in the making of cornmeal.•Dent corn: Large, starchy grains with hard skins that have a dent on the top of each kernel. Always used more for animal fodder than human consumption.•Sweet corn: Most common type for corn on the cob eating. The starch in the kernels is prevented from developing compared to other types due to a genetic defect.•Popcorn: Cultivated with a particular starch and a moisture level that are perfect for popping.Source: "The Oxford Companion to Food," by Alan Davidson

chaddix@tribune.com

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