The Land of Corn and Quinoa.
Born in a nation where many farmers don’t understand the long-term implications of the strains of genetically modified corn they grow, I never imagined that corn could be a beautiful and exotic food. For good reason, folks like Curtis Ellis and Michael Pollan have made corn a dirty word in America, but as my education on corn takes root, I realize that this has a lot more to do with our politics than the plant itself.
I recently traveled to Peru, a country whose love of diversity was clear when dining on local cuisine. On the left-hand side of my plate you can see a third of a cob of corn with massive white kernels. This corn, known as paraqay sara or giant white corn, was sacred to the Incan people. One of the eight varieties of corn grown in the Sacred Valley of Peru, giant white corn tastes like a cross between corn and a potato. It is smooth, creamy, and extremely hearty. I never once saw a person eating a full cob by themselves. Traditionally (in Peruvian tradition, not Incan), this creamy but bland corn is eaten with large slices of salty Cuzco cheese. I’m not sure if our climate is appropriate, but of the many things I adored about Peru, this is one thing I wish I could take home with me for use on my future farm.
Aside being accepted as a culinary staple, Peruvians also love to drink their corn. Chicha, or corn beer, is a fermented beverage made from corn. To make chicha, the corn is milled and moistened in the brewer’s mouth. Yup, you got that right. The first step of chicha is to chew up corn and spit it into your brewing vessel. Much like malting, this method converts the starch in corn into fermentable sugars. Chicha is traditionally made by women and available sporadically. When a red flag hangs outside of someone’s home, passersby know to stop for a class of freshly made chicha. They product is not available at bars, only random houses. Then, there is chicha morado, which literally means purple chicha. This drink is not fermented and not alcoholic. It is made by boiling ears of purple corn with cinnamon, clove and pineapple rind. The end result is sweet, spicy and fruity.
I almost fell in love with corn during my trip to Peru, despite all the harsh words it receives in America. Then I remembered that the corn of Peru looks little like the corn grown here. Peruvians firmly believe in preserving genetic diversity. With over 55 varieties of corn and 300 types of potatoes, it is clear that Peruvians have far too much respect for the land and its range of conditions to ever try and blanket the countryside with only one or two varieties of any given crop. In March of this year, Peru passed a monumental bill that banned genetically engineered crops from being grown in their country for the next ten years. Despite strong agribusiness lobbies, the controversial ban took only three years to pass Congress and will not be up for any kind of review until 2022.
South America as a whole seems to understand the importance of ancestral strains. Much like America’s Seed Savers Exchange, Cesar Guale Vasquez, recently profiled by Heifer International, works for a seed-saving project in the coastal plain of Ecuador. In a region turning increasingly toward large monoculture farms of major cash crops, Vasquez and his organization hope to find traditional varieties of vegetables and bring them back to cultivation on small farms. Vasquez literally searches day after day for threatened heirloom varieties. Aside from collecting rare seeds to preserve ancestral crop varieties, Vasquez and his organization also hold seed swaps in local villages where people literally come together to exchange heirloom varieties with their neighbors
Intrigued by the variety of corn in both appearance and flavor, I dreamed of returning to the states and growing similar varieties. When I searched for corn on the Burpee website, I was excited to see 72 choices. As I scrolled through the pages, my excitement waned. All varieties appeared identical in size and shape, the only difference was in the colors of their kernels. I found only one, Country Gentleman, with irregular rows.
In the Pyle Center courtyard, Blue Hopi Corn grows tall and majestic, the only thing truly happy with the recently sun-saturated weather. It may not be as iconic as paraqay sara, but it is organic and beautiful, satisfying my recent infatuation with the ancient plant. At least for now.