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Posted by on Nov 29, 2019 in Food, History | 0 comments

Did the Pilgrims really eat corn?

When Americans hear or read the word corn, they immediately think of a yellow vegetable that grows on stalks and that the state of Iowa is famous for.

However, prior to the year 1492 CE, the word corn was a Germanic word that was used in reference to various grains produced in the Old World such as wheat, oats, barley and rye.

From Bon Appétit:

“Corn” itself, though, has much deeper roots, going back to the misty prehistory of Proto-Indo-European. Both “grain” and “corn” come from the same very old PIE word, though there are two options for which that might be: either ger-, meaning “worn down,” or gher-, meaning “matured.” That stem wound up through Latin, on the one hand, which kept the G and gave us today’s “grain,” and through the Germanic languages, which, in their no-nonsense way, turned the G into a hard K, and gave us “corn.”

What is now called corn was originally called maize and originated in Mexico.

From History.com: “Corn does not grow wild anywhere in the world. Instead, this domesticated plant evolved sometime in the last 10,000 years, through human intervention, from teosinte, a form of wild Mexican grass.”

From Camp Silos:

“Corn as we know it today would not exist if it weren’t for the humans that cultivated and developed it. It is a human invention, a plant that does not exist naturally in the wild. It can only survive if planted and protected by humans. Scientists believe people living in central Mexico developed corn at least 7000 years ago. It was started from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte looked very different from our corn today. The kernels were small and were not placed close together like kernels on the husked ear of modern corn.”

According to one scientific study, there was “a major wave of ‘proto-corn’ movement from Mexico to South America. The partially domesticated maize seems to have landed in the southwest Amazon, which was already a hotspot for the domestication of other plants, including rice, squash and cassava. . . It is possible, though not certain, that maize in this new location evolved more quickly than maize in the center of domestication, which would explain why the 5,000-year-old cobs from the cave in Mexico appear to be in an intermediary phase of domestication at a time when maize was already being cultivated in the Amazon.”

The corn eaten by the Pilgrims wasn’t the yellow sweet corn that modern-day Americans eat. Instead, the Pilgrims ate Flint corn.

Flint corn

From History.com:

Flint corn, or Indian corn, is one of the oldest varieties of corn, a type that Native Americans taught the early colonists how to cultivate. Its kernels, which come in a range of colors including white, blue and red, have “hard as flint” shells, giving this type of corn its name. Flint corn kernels contain a small amount of soft starch surrounded completely by a larger amount of hard starch, which means the kernels shrink uniformly when drying and are dent-free and less prone to spoiling (and therefore ideal for autumnal décor). Despite its tough exterior, this type of corn can be consumed by livestock and humans, and is used in such dishes as hominy and polenta.

Also from History.com:

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.

So, the Pilgrims ate a corn-based food but didn’t eat yellow corn on the cob.


Image of Flint corn by Iraexist (10 October 2015) and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Featured Image in Public Domain