A Culture of Corn (una cultura de maiz)

Suchitoto’s community corn grinder.

White corn dominates the markets here in El Salvador, and it is used primarily for tortillas, but also it is eaten corn-on-the-cob style, and even made into a drink, atol de elote. From 1960 to today, total corn production in El Salvador has risen from 200,000 metric tons annually to close to one million MT/year. The total area of production rose only from about 180,000 to 260,000 hectares during the same time period. But corn has been planted in this area for far longer than that, as Mayan records show. In fact, mixing the corn flour and water with slaked lime (ash) can be attributed to the Mayans, who eventually stumbled upon this solution after countless sacrifices to the gods. The lime helps make niacin more available for our bodies to digest, and niacin deficiency causes pellagra (skin lesions), which the Mayans clearly thought was a horrific disease of the gods. In fact, they renamed corn after this discovery – corn mixed with ash was the non-diseased variety, and had a different name to specify it as such.

The wet-grinder, to make masa.

Today, corn is still an essential part of El Salvador’s culture. During the civil war, women (called molenderas) would travel with the guerrilla fighters solely to make corn tortillas. If they came upon (bought, stole, however) other food, the molenderas would cook that up as well, but quite often, the only food available would be corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (assuming they ate three times a day, which is unlikely). Every campesino family had (and still have) their milpa, their plot of land where they plant their corns and beans for their own consumption. And in nearly every village, there is a community corn grinder. For larger communities, the grinder might have two parts – one to grind dry corn, and the other part to grind corn mixed with water and lime to make masa. Women will walk with a bucket of corn on their head to these community corn grinders, and walk home with a carefully covered mound of masa in the same bucket (still on their head, though since it’s heavier with the added water, I have seen them get assistance from other ladies to hoist it up on their heads). No doubt this masa will be used for their daily rations of corn tortillas that accompany every meal – or may even be the meal, in some cases. However, the masa is also used to make the quintessential Salvadoran fare – pupusas. I am a fan of the simple frijol y queso pupusas, but you can also get them stuffed with chicharron, ayote, or loroco in most places. I am not a fan of atol de elote nor do I have corn tortillas very often, but from time to time, mostly at fairs or other festive events, I will buy an elote loco. Who can resist corn on the cob on a stick slathered with mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup and shredded Parmesan cheese?!?

Hillsides of maiz.



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