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The Olmec Women

“I will listen to any hypothesis but on one condition—that you show me a method by which It can be tested.” -Von Hoffman (in Gregory, 1916)

Last week I meant to share with y’all the story of maize, something that is so fundamental to what we now know as Mexican cuisine. Maize or corn as we know it, is the primary ingredient behind masa, without it you don’t have tacos, tostadas, tamales, hominy for pozole… etc. I started writing out the role played by matriarchy in its existence and somehow ended up lost, retelling the story of my own foremothers. Today I am going to try my best to not do the same and tell you the story of the crop that you love so much, instead.

There are a number of theories as to how maize (corn) came to existence. For hundreds of years now, groups of scientists have attempted to solve the mystery by linking it to other crops that look like it or by simply crediting evolution. The more I’ve read on these theories the more one seems to make a lot more sense than the others. Now, before I share what I know, keep in mind that I am far from a science major, but I am obsessed with this history so there's that. The first thing you should know is that for many scientists, maize is perhaps the most impressive feat of domestication and genetic modification, ever. In our modern society, it is the single largest crop in the US and the most produced in the world. I can tell you of many of the things that it is responsible for, however the one that truly really matters to me is the way in which it is used in this cuisine. One theory is that maize is a derivative from pod corn. Now, if you’ve ever seen pod corn you would probably assume the same thing, how could you not, the thing looks just like corn, only from another planet! However, unlike much of the corn that we consume now, in pod corn, each individual kernel is enclosed in long, membranous husks known as glumes. This is due to a genetic mutation in the cob which makes it grow leaves in the wrong place, making it nearly impossible to uncover each individual kernel.

The problem with this theory is that unlike maize, pod corn rises on its own, it doesn’t need the help of farmers to continue to reproduce as it is a wild-grass. Maize on the other hand requires a great amount of domestication that can only be done by humans. Therefore this old theory doesn’t quite hold up the same as it did in the 1800’s. Another theory, that up until the 1960’s was pretty well accepted, was simply known as the “Tripartite theory”. The idea was that maize had simply gone through a long evolutionary period in which one unknown and now extinct wild plant, which had the characteristics of the big ears of the maize of now, gave birth to another plant simply known as Teosinte, which became the parent of our beloved maize. I will speak more on teosinte shortly, but first let me stay on this topic.

The problem with the Tripartite theory was the lack of evidence to show the existence of the original parent plant, researchers believed that even if there was a parent plant, it was nearly impossible for it to transformed through evolution on its own, to do so would require human intervention and intentionality, clearly something outside of the knowledge of the natives of the time. Therefore the theory was thrown out. Instead the mystery continued and folks went back to believing that maize was simply the work of a long and drawn out process of evolution from a parent plant that no longer existed.

In other words, despite not having proof for that so-called parent plant, or even how maize could simply evolve on its own, it was easier to settle for the fact that the crop simply just appeared than to accept the idea that it was possible for the natives of what is now Mexico to have intentionally interfered it its evolution, helping it become what it is. So after reading printed papers of one theory vs another, here is my takeaway from it all. And please forgive me if I come off a bit biased. Maize cannot simply grow on its own, it needs human intervention. It is not a wild crop and there isn’t evidence to show that it ever was. Which is why, when we see rows and rows of beautiful corn fields, it is because humans are cultivating it. To cultivate it they first had to domesticate it. Which brings us all the way back to about 7000 years ago, before the existence of the Olmec civilization, which is believed to have existed around the Pre-Classical era (2500 BCE - 200 CE). There are 5 great civilizations in history of what we call the “Americas” ; The Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans, The Incas, the Aztecs. Don’t get me wrong there were many other civilizations existing during this period, however you do not hear of them because the aforementioned groups did a pretty great job at either converting them or erasing their existence from history, so there is no real way to know who existed before and during their time.

However, if the Olmecs are THE oldest known civilization, then you should know that for them maize was a very important commodity. We know this because they had a God who represented it. Again, a theory from artifacts found from that era that show evidence of maize through imagery.

The theory that I love so much, is the one about the Olmecs, more importantly the Olmec women. First let me come back to Teosinte, a wild grass plant native to what is now central Mexico. Teosinte, which translates to “grain of the gods”, has the characteristics of modern day maize. To give you a better idea how they compare, teosinte is about 2-3 inches in size with each ear yielding between 10-12 kernels, which are tough and are made up of less nutrients than modern day maize. Modern day maize however, is about 11-12 inches in size, with about 500 kernels per ear. The two share many genetic things in common that could not be explained unless someone had purposely bred the two, but why and how? Well for one, the kernels found in teosinte are encased in a tough coat. This is nature protecting itself from predators, the coating creating a better chance for survival within the digestive tracts of mammals out in the wild. Humans did not particularly like that trait, so they simply began to separate and separate until the coating became the paper-thin shell that tends to get stuck between your teeth after you are done eating it. For that to all happen someone had to solve two problems, which were how to improve the size of the ear along with the yield of the kernels. They did both of these things by grafting, introgression, and lot separation. In other words, they took the roots along with the bottom portion of one plant and attached it to a tender shoot from the top portion of an entirely different plant, thus resulting in what is known as introgression, which is described as the transfer of genetic information from one species to another as a result of hybridization. Now just because you frankenstein some shit, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a new plant by next harvest. It took hundreds of years of taking that tiny teosinte plant and turning it to one that was the size of a tennis ball. It took just as much time to take that corn which was the size of a tennis ball and turn it into the corn which we consume now. This was years and years of taking the best crops and separating them onto an entirely different field. From there taking the best from that “best” field, and creating an entirely different field of the “best of the best”; the sweetest kernels, the largest ears, the most adaptable, the most resistant to pests… etc. Through hundreds, if not thousands of years of lot separation and selective breeding, the natives successfully found a way to drastically change the grain quality, yield, appearance, and survivability of the maize that we consume now. According to scientists, of the 59,000 total genes in the corn genome, approximately 1,200 were preferentially targeted for selection during its domestication.

This here for me, is just the beginning of the story. This is where the obsession with this food and this culture truly gets interesting. You see, based on the timeline of these events, it was the Olmecs who found a way to do all of this, more importantly the first settlers, not the civilization who ended up in what is now Veracruz and Tabasco, but rather those who existed in what was known as Tlatilco and Tlapcoya (central Mexico). Hear me out on this one because there isn’t really a right way to explain this piece. If the gender roles were historically “correct”, then surely farming was considered to be a male activity, at least you would think. But in that place and in that period, not so much. In fact Anthropologists have analyzed the bones of Olmec women and revealed evidence of the wear from the repetitive motion of grinding down maize. And apparently that wasn’t their only role. The women of that society played pivotal roles in sowing, harvesting, and of course preparing the food consumed by their loved ones.

I can tell you this first hand, in my travels through Mexico, from coffee farm to coffee farm, it was the women who did a lot of the tedious work. I am talking about the planting of seeds, the picking of coffee cherries from the trees, the separation of lots, the accounting of books, the payment to employees, and the cooking for Guests such as myself. I have seen one person do all of these jobs, everywhere I’ve gone!

And maybe this is a stretch but the reason why I love the history of maize so much is because when I look at our restaurants, when I see the way we interact with this crop; from the moment those corn-filled sacks appear at our door to the way in which we make a quesadilla from 2-3 different varietals, there is a connection between us and those people who have given us so much. More specifically the women.

Look, I told you I am not a science major, but I do understand the basic principles of maternal love; care-taking, nurturing, motherliness! Is it really that hard to believe that anyone else but women could be responsible for this crop?

It had to be women. In my world, every food related to maize goes back to a memory of my mother, or my grandmother, or a woman in a Fondita, or even the women in our kitchen. And I understand that because of that same nostalgia my judgment might be a bit… compromised. But who else would take a few kernels of teosinte, mix them with something like dried beans in hopes of making it last longer? Who else would take that masa and shape that dough like a tiny boat only to be topped off with other things like cactus or squash? What can I say friends, I am compromised. I thought that after all of this reading I would find more answers but the only thing I keep finding is the answer that surely makes the most sense to me, and because of this I no longer look at maize the same. I am overwhelmed by it all.

I feel joy watching Maestro Jose say a quick prayer before touching the nixtamalized corn at the start of his shift. I feel that same joy when I watch Chef Letty make the perfect Tetela. There are moments throughout the night where I just look for people's reactions as they pull out a single tortilla from the tortillero; they look at it closely, they take in the texture, the smell, the taste… they feel that same joy I feel, without even knowing all of this history.

I am 43 years old now, and if I live another 43 I will spend every day of my life praising the work of the Olmec Women.

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