Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | November 25, 2010

The Science Of Your Stuffing

If you think you know your cornbread, think again.  I’m not talking about cholesterol or fat or sodium – on Thanksgiving that would be too cruel.  No, I’m talking about Native Americans taking a nasty, almost-inedible wild grass called teosinte  and patiently planting, selecting, cross-pollinating and harvesting over and over for thousands of years until they created the civilization-building miracle know as corn.  That’s right – Native Americans were genetic engineers minus the geeky lab coats, and the cornbread in your stuffing is their entirely artificial human invention.

The study of corn (or maize, if you prefer) is a strangely hot topic among many branches of science – anthropology, archaeology, genetics, geology, ethnobotany and molecular biology to name a few.  According to recent research,  the long, slow process of corn domestication probably took place in the lowlands of Mexico’s tropical rainforests.  Once it became a reliable, working crop (around 1500 B.C.) it spread rapidly through the Americas, forming the foundation of trade networks and literally changing the landscape of the continents as tribes cleared large areas of grassland and forest for cultivation.  Of course, you can never have explosive growth like that without an environmental disaster or two.  Based on a study by the USDA Forest Service, the rise of maize production around 500 – 1,000 years ago was a likely cause of freshwater mussel decline in the southeastern US. 

But what would an “Indian” story be without the “pilgrims?”  A lot healthier for the Indians, I’m sure, but the fact is that the Europeans arriving in the Americas saw maize for the brilliant crop it was and immediately exported it back home.  Because of corn’s ability to thrive in diverse climates, it became a global hit, and is now grown all over the world.  From the US to the Ukraine, more corn is grown – by weight – than any other grain.

In the early days, however, maize’s newfound popularity caused a major health epidemic known as pellagra.  Folks everywhere were gobbling it up by the bushel, without any thought to the consequences – I mean, it’s just food, right?  Soon afterwards, though, a nasty outbreak of skin lesions, psychosis and death followed with no discernable explanation.  Americans – particularly those in the southeast – suffered through a few hundred years, believing pellagra was caused by germs or toxins in corn.  Finally, in 1938 a group of scientists discovered that the vitamin niacin was the simple cure.  As it turns out, the original growers and consumers of maize – who did not ever suffer from pellagra – treated the grain with lime in a process called nixtamalization.   Alkalis in the lime treatment made the niacin in corn nutritionally available, which prevented disease.  Once the niacin connection was made, food processors began adding it as a nutritional supplement.  If there is any justice in nature, “pellagra” would be the Native American way of saying “so long and thanks for all the smallpox.”

So this year be sure to give thanks for all of those blessings – known and unknown – which patience, Native Americans and science have brought us.  And enjoy your stuffing.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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