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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Corn is Foundation of Thanksgiving Holiday

LAS CRUCES -- Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the bounty this country enjoys, said a horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University. Historically, the holiday is based on the story of how Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to grow corn, which helped them survive the bitter winter of 1620.

"The story of the New World is the story of corn," said George Dickerson, of NMSU'sCooperative Extension Service. "Probably the oldest known remains of corn are cobs dating back 7,000 years that were found in Tehucan, Mexico."

Corn was the foundation of many New World civilizations including the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs. "In 1540, Coronado found Pueblo Indians growing irrigated corn along the Rio Grande," Dickerson said. "Corn remains the foundation of modern agriculture in the United States."

As Americans sit down to a Thanksgiving meal of turkey with cornbread stuffing and, perhaps, corn on the cob, they are honoring a tradition begun by their ancestors. Here in the Southwest, corn and corn products have an even greater heritage.

"Atole, tortillas, corn chips and other corn products have been the backbone of most traditional and present-day Native American and Mexican-American cuisines," Dickerson said. "Blue corn and other flour corns historically have been the major types that are ground into harinas, or cornmeals, and corn flours. Some Native Americans consider blue and white flour corns sacred."

Atole is a cornmeal mush often eaten for breakfast. Other corn products include chaquegue (pronounced chuh-KAY-way), a traditional cornmeal drink, and nixtamal, a lime hominy used in making stews. "Piki bread or paper bread is probably the most sacred of Native American foods, consisting of a thin layer of corn batter cooked on a hot rock griddle," Dickerson said.

Tortillas and corn chips made from white or blue corns are traditionally a Mexican-American cuisine. Posole is another New Mexico favorite. Similar to hominy, it is prepared with chile and pork in a stew.

Chicos, dried corn kernels used in stews, are made from white or sweet corn, Dickerson said. "Immature corn ears are baked overnight in an horno or earthen oven, removed the following morning and husked. The ears are then allowed to dry on a tin roof or strung over rafters in a barn by their husks." Dried kernels are removed and used as needed.

Ornamental corn cobs also are popular during Thanksgiving. "These can be used to decorate walls or the dining table for holiday festivities," Dickerson said. Harvest wreaths and ristras of ornamental corn and chile are popular gift items, while ornamental popcorns can be popped as a holiday treat.