I'm not shy about thanking the Native Americans in North and South America for some of the delicious foods we depend on in our country. Native foods provide some of our most valued and flavorful ingredients, including potatoes, beans, wild rice, maple syrup, certain peppers, sunflowers, chocolate, peanuts and turkey.

Today we will focus on teosinte.

Teosinte was once a grass from southern Mexico. The kernels of the grass didn't differ that much from many grasses that grow rampantly in fields around us today, but they flourished in those times as a major food crop to southern tribes much like wild rice.

The name "teosinte" is from the language of the Nahuatl tribes, which some translate to “grain of the gods," demonstrating its immense dietary value. Archaeology suggests humans first began domesticating animals and plants some 10,000 years ago, and evidence suggests 9,000 years ago teosinte joined the list of human domesticated crops.

You wouldn't recognize teosinte, though it still grows in Mexico. It has about a dozen small grains wrapped in a hard casing. In spite of that, this plant went on to become the source of 21 percent of human nutrition globally. Teosinte's modern counterpart is corn.

It took a long time for teosinte to become corn. It's almost hard to imagine this plant really being that important, given its size, its difficulty in processing and the fact that many of its nutrients were, and still are, unavailable if cooked outright and even downright toxic thanks to naturally occurring fungi.

It's a mystery to me how they discovered it, but Native tribes those hundreds of years ago knew that teosinte (and by extension, corn) was often infected with fungi that produced aflatoxins and mycotoxins. It was also largely made up of insoluble grain kernels, which all know are not digestible by humans.

Between the toxins and bioavailability, eating teosinte unprocessed could be deadly. As recent as 2004, corn mycotoxins were responsible for the deaths of 125 people in Kenya.

Somehow, the brilliant Nahuatl found that a process called nixtamalization would not only make teosinte safer by destroying those toxins, but it would also break down insoluble fibers and make teosinte more nutritional. This made corn starch, grits, corn flour and so many other foods possible.

Nixtamalization is similar to the process by which hominy is made. Corn is soaked in an alkali solution (often lye or lime water) before being processed.

In addition to nixtamalization, corn came a long way to be what it is today. Dent corn, still used for animal feed and cornmeal, once would have been the primary food crop from corn. However, the botanically genius Native tribes had discovered and cultivated a mutated crop of corn that today is known as sweet corn, without which corn on the cob would be a very different experience.

Many might not be aware quite how far corn has come even recently. Just last year I learned from an unearthed recorded interview with my Grandpa Henry Grimler that it wasn't until halfway through his lifetime that corn could be grown in Minnesota. Between shifting climate zones and cultivation it's now so popular in local fields it's almost hard to imagine.

I consider corn on the cob to be one of the biggest symbols of summer, alongside brats, but it is also in almost any packaged foods that have oil or corn syrup, or in chips and tortillas and even by proxy in our beef. We even use it in our fuel. Only 10% of all corn grown makes it into the human food chain with the rest going to fuel and animal feed.

All that started with an unimpressive, toxin ridden grass.

In thanks, let's appreciate Elotes, a combination of corn from the south and mayonnaise, if you remember from an earlier column, from Minnesota.

Elotes (Mexican Street Corn)

  • Shucked corn (grilled or boiled)
  • Mayonnaise
  • Grated salty Parmesan or Cotija cheese
  • Chili powder
  • Lime juice
  • Hot sauce
  • Alternatively, use ground flaming hot Cheetos, Takis or spicy Doritos

After cooking your corn, skewer it on a wooden skewer and use a basting brush or spatula to coat the corn with mayonnaise. Traditionally this would be rolled in the cheese with chili powder, lime and hot sauce added (to your taste). More recently these have been prepared by rolling them in crumbs from hot chips or similar salty snacks, ironically all corn products.

Microwave Corn on the Cob

  • 1 ear of corn, unshucked

Microwave an unshucked ear of corn for 4 minutes. Cut off the bottom, being sure to remove all of the stem. Use hot pads to squeeze the ear out the bottom. It should come out with virtually no fiber and perfectly cooked.

Nixtamalization

From radicalgastronomy.com

  • 2 cups dry corn
  • 2 cups sifted hard wood ash
  • ½ gallon water
  • Vinegar (to wash any off of exposed skin)

Boil ashes in the water for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for 30 minutes. Wearing rubber gloves and eye protection and with vinegar nearby, pour off the lye water, leaving the ashes at the bottom. If lye water gets on your skin, use vinegar to neutralize it and wash it off.

Simmer the corn in the lye water for 30 minutes. The corn should change color in the first minute if the solution is strong enough. Remove from heat and let stand at room temperature overnight.

Rinse these kernels the next morning then rub the kernels between your hands to remove the skins. This is hominy. It can be ground to make grits or corn flour for tortillas or tamale dough.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.