Tales of Teosinte: Corn, the Third Sister

by Roxanne Bergeron

CornThe Huron Indians tell this story about the origin of corn:

“In ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent
forth a woman to save humanity. As she travelled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And in the place where she had sat, there grew tobacco.”1

When I read this, it reminded me of a springtime so many years ago when I was mother to two small children. On a whim I flicked a handful of kernels off some purple-husked Indian corncobs left over from the previous fall’s decorations, and planted them in our sunny suburban backyard. That same year I also cut up a bunch of potatoes whose eyes had started sprouting and planted those for good measure.

At that time in my life, I was hell on houseplants and had not tried growing anything since I planted a cotton seed I was given as a child. But it was with the same delight I remember feeling as my cottonseed gave rise to a bona fide boll of cotton—a fluffy puffball full of more seeds!—when I witnessed those little corn seeds of questionable age and viability awaken beneath the earth and send up purple shoots. They grew taller and taller and taller. Ladybugs found their way to Lino Lakes and gorged themselves on whatever unwelcome pests were working those stalks, and the children delighted in watching the ladybugs crawl on our fingers.

The potatoes seemed to be growing too, but I just was not sure what to make of that until I went to pull them up and found potatoes in the ground. (Duh!)

How fun to learn later in life that I had retold the salvation of the world to my children! The only thing missing was the tobacco—had we only sat down in the right way, who knows what might have happened!!

A tassel by any other name…

Zea mays is the scientific name for maize, or, if you will, corn, and is a member of the grass family, Gramineae.2 One particular grass, whose common name is teosinte (a Nahuatl Indian word interpreted to mean “grain of the gods”), is the likely ancestor of present-day maize, according to genetic analysis.3 The oldest fossilized corn pollen on record is an 80,000-year-old specimen found in a core sample taken 200 feet below Mexico City.4

Corn is one of the so-called Three Sisters of agriculture—corn, beans, and squash—that complement
one another nutritionally and agriculturally. When grown together, the bean plants can shimmy up
the supporting cornstalks, while the squash planted around the base provides mulch and shade
for the plant roots.

The varied subspecies of modern-day corn provide the entire world with food for people and other animals, fuel, industrial products, and also provide an academic focus for many scientific disciplines.

Naturally, heirloom varieties abound. Seed Savers Exchange has handsome varieties available for the gardener, such as Black Aztec, Bloody Butcher, Oaxacan Green Dent, and Tom Thumb Popcorn.5

Popcorn, by the way, was enjoyed by those clever ancient farmers that cultivated corn.6 Its subspecies name is Zea mays everta.7 It pops because of its moisture level of 15% and a strong hull structure that allows the buildup of steam.8

Teosinte and the Hopscotch gene

About 23,000 years ago, a “jumping gene” (Hopscotch) landed in the part of a teosinte gene involved in plant architecture. This evolutionary move led the plant to become less branchy and to develop ears with more kernels.9

The transformed ancient wild
grass was cultivated by farmers in southern Mexico some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin traced the grain to its genetic forebear, Balsas teosinte.10

The genetic modification of corn spans the eons, from the practical practice of ancient Mesoamerican mendelians to modern-day gene splicing. Heck—you could write a book about it (see the Further Reading section of this modest article for a sampling from the multitude of sources available to learn more about the agropolitical realities of corn in our world).

Among other manipulations, corn has been bred to be sweeter, and genetically modified to resist pests, including the so-called Bt variety of corn—genetically engineered by splicing in a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil organism, to make its own pesticide defense against corn rootworms.

This corn variety, introduced by Monsanto in 2003, now accounts for 65 percent of all US corn acres, according to a Star Tribune article posted in late December of 2011.11 But, according to the article, the rootworms are already showing evidence that they are resistant to the pesticide. A lack of rotation crops in the Bt fields and failure to plant non-Bt varieties may be at the root of nature doing what it does best—evolve and survive.

It makes one ponder the lesson from nature, which was good enough to slide a gene back around to an earlier form of itself 23,000 years ago, and in doing so, serve us up that irresistible fastball of a plant with more branches and fatter kernels, so we—humans and grass—could work together for our mutual survival through biodiversity.


What could be more Mesoamerican than a tortilla? With just two ingredients—masa harina and water—you can make your own homemade tortillas. Here is a recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook.12 A caveat in the recipe’s narrative is to use masa harina, which is a corn meal ground in a certain way and is treated with lime water; the flavor is “induplicable.”

2 cups masa harina
1¼ cups water (approximately)
Optional: dash of salt

Mix masa harina and water together (and salt, if you choose), first with a fork, and eventually with your hands. Knead for about 5 minutes. You may have to add a little extra water. The dough should hold together.

Make 12 equal balls, smooth and round. Roll out each ball, on one side only, on an unfloured surface (Formica works well) or between two sheets of waxed paper, to 1/8-inch thick. Trim the edges of the circle with a knife. You should emerge with a neat, clean, thin 6-inch round.

Pan-fry on a lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, 3–4 minutes on each side. Wrap in a damp towel, and keep them warm in a 200º F oven until serving time.

Corn soup

I dug up this recipe while exploring the culinary approaches to corn in Asia, where a lot of soup is made. This Tibetan version of corn soup from the Food Network is adapted from the Lhasa Moon Tibetan Cookbook.13

½ onion, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
12 ounces firm tofu, cut into small pieces
1 15-ounce can cream corn
½ cup frozen corn kernels
4 cups water
1 green onion, chopped

Saute the onion in butter in a soup pot until brown and soft. Add the paprika, garlic, and ginger and cook briefly. Add the tomato, tofu, and water. Add the canned and frozen corn.

Bring soup to a boil and simmer for a few minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Sprinkle chopped green onion on each serving.

For further reading and viewing

Food, Inc., 2009 documentary, http://www.foodincmovie.com

King Corn: You Are What You Eat, 2007 documentary, http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/kingcorn/filmocracy.html

PanAmerican Health Organization, “Meddling with Maize?”

Pollen, Michael, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, The Penguin Press, 2008

Pollen, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, The Penguin Press, 2006

World Health Organization, Medicinal plants commonly used in the Newly Independent States (NIS), “Styli cum stigmatis Zeae Maydis,” http://www.who.int/medicines/areas/traditional/monograph_eng.pdf

World Health Organization, “Plant derived vaccines,” http://www.who.int/biologicals/vaccines/plant_derived_vaccines/en/


1. http://www.who.int/tobacco/en/atlas2.pdf

2. http://www.worldwildlife.org/what/globalmarkets/agriculture/WWFBinaryite...

3. http://teosinte.wisc.edu/questions.html

4. http://www.agron.iastate.edu/courses/agron212/readings/corn_history.htm

5. http://www.seedsavers.org/Items.aspx?hierId=27&gclid=CLeq2Z7ar60CFcEUKgo...

6. http://www.nal.usda.gov/speccoll/images1/popcorn.html

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize

8. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7584284/ns/technology_and_science

9. http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2011/09/jumping-gene-enabled-...

10. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25creature.html

11. www.startribune.com/nation/136326778.html

12. Katzen, Mollie, Moosewood Cookbook, Ten Speed Press: 1977

13. www.food.com/recipe/tibetan-corn-soup-ashom-tang-298784

[Roxanne Bergeron is an HPC volunteer, food lover, and sometimes writer.]