Mexican Corn on the Cob
One of the great seasonal icons of the Americas is corn on the cob. It just tastes like summer, doesn’t it?
Actually, to be perfectly correct, I probably should have said “maize on the cob.” Maize is indigenous to the Americas, but corn is not. That may sound like double talk, but corn doesn’t really mean what you probably think of as corn. The term corn actually means the most important cereal crop of a region. Hence, wheat was traditionally the corn of England, oats were the corn of Ireland and Scotland, rye was the corn of northern Germany, and in South Africa, the grain that is known as Bantu corn is millet. The term can also mean small, hard seed, which is why the seed from barley is often called barleycorn.
(A little etymological aside here: The corn that means grain comes from Old Norse, korn, which means “grain.” The hard bump that grows on some toes, though it may feel like a hard seed, actually gets its name from the Middle English/Middle French corne, which means “horn.” So the words are unrelated.)
When settlers reached the New World, they called the grain grown most commonly by the Native Americans “Indian corn.” This explains why, even though no one in Europe had seen maize before they reached the Americas, you may still see references to corn in older literature. Only in the United States is the word corn used to denote maize alone.
Maize is the only cereal grain indigenous to the New World. It appears to have been domesticated around 6600 BC in Honduras, Guatemala, and nearby areas of Mexico. By 3500 BC, it was a staple in most of Central America, and it soon became the primary food plant of American cultures ranging from the Incas of Peru and Mayas and Aztecs of Mexico to the mound builders of the Mississippi and the cliff dwellers of the American Southwest.
Europeans first encountered maize when they first encountered the Americas. Columbus and crew were fed maize in the Caribbean islands on which they landed. In fact, the word maize is simply the Spanish rendering of the Taino word mahiz, the Taino being one of the groups of islanders that entertained the newcomers.
While maize was nutritionally inferior to other cereal grains, it had the advantage of being incredibly easy to grow, and it would grow almost anywhere, hardly needing cultivation. This is the reason that corn saved all those early settlers you read about in your history books. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to farm, it was that they didn’t have anything that would grow in the various adverse conditions in which they generally found themselves, from the rocky soil of New England to the swampy site of Jamestown. But corn didn’t care where it was growing.
Maize has spread worldwide, particularly to Africa and Asia. However, maize still enjoys its greatest importance in the land of its birth. The United States produces more than half of all the maize harvested in the world. Maize is grown in every state of the Union and on three-quarters of the country’s farms.
The sweet corn that is now so popular, both on and off the cob, is a comparatively new discovery. The Iroquois appear to have been growing it in central New York by the 1600s, but European settlers didn’t discover it until 1799. However, it wasn’t widely cultivated until after the Civil War. After that, its popularity grew steadily, and since World War I, canned sweet corn has outsold all other canned vegetables in the U.S. (And, as an aside, in a world where labels are strange and fluid things, while there are many fruits that are considered vegetables, corn is the only cereal grain that is considered a vegetable.)
In Latin America, starchier corn varieties are generally grown. From Mexico through most of South America, corn appears in tortillas, tamales, breads, puddings, stews, beverages, and a wide range of other dishes. It is still a major staple crop.
In Mexico, corn on the cob is called elote, though I’ve seen that word used to describe corn cut off the cob and cooked in everything from soup to flan. However, in Oaxaca, the place I most commonly saw the word elote was on the sides of the carts of the street vendors selling corn on the cob. Near the center of town, these vendors were common, and each one would have his own little spin on how he prepared the elote—but they all had the same basic ingredients. They would pull several fresh, hot ears of corn out of their steamers to let me pick the one I liked best. They would poke a short wooden handle in the end of the cob I’d chosen, and then they would set to work, preparing what became my favorite light meal while I was there. The ingredients may surprise you, but this is absolutely wonderful. Enjoy.
(Mexican Corn on the Cob)
Corn on the cob, cooked and hot
Sharp cheese, such as Parmesan, shredded or grated
Lime wedge (optional)
Salt to taste
In Mexico, the handles are made of short pieces of wood cut to suit, but a blunt knife could be stuck in the end of the corn cob if you don’t have a piece of wood (and you do need a handle).
Spread a layer of mayonnaise—enough to coat—over the hot corn, then roll the corn in the cheese or sprinkle the cheese over the corn while turning it. (My favorite vendors would always put the corn down in the cheese and heap it on top, to make sure the ear got well coated, then they’d let the excess fall off.) Then sprinkle with chile powder and salt to taste. A few vendors finished this off with a squeeze of lime, which is a nice, fresh touch, but I didn’t find that this appreciably altered my enjoyment of the dish, and it can make it drippier.
While I encountered mayo on the occasions I enjoyed elote in Oaxaca, I have read that some vendors use sour cream—and given the popularity of sour cream in Mexico, I wouldn’t find that at all surprising. And it doesn’t sound like it would be a bad choice, but I think the salt and squeeze of lime would become more important, if you didn’t have the acidity and saltiness of the mayo. I’ve also read that, during the summer, one can find elote vendors even in parts of Chicago—so when you’re out and about this summer, keep your eyes open.