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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Corn Leaves Legacy on Holiday Plates

LAS CRUCES -- Hundreds of years before turkey and pumpkin pie, foods like piki bread, atole and chaquegue were centerpieces for holiday dinners. Today, tamales and posole spice up special occasions in the Southwest.

Though they aren't part of the traditional Norman Rockwell spread, these corn-based dishes share the same New World roots, said George Dickerson, horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

"Piki bread or paper bread is a wafer-thin bread made from corn meal and water cooked on a hot, flat stone grill or platter," Dickerson explained. "Traditionally, it's often part of Pueblo Indian sacred festivals. Atole is a corn meal drink and chaquegue (pronounced chuh-KAY-way) is a corn meal mush. Both are consumed on special occasions during the year."

Corn has shaped western civilizations from Mayan and Aztec cultures to the modern United States.

In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado found Pueblo Indians in the Southwest growing irrigated corn. Spaniards who settled in the area adopted it as part of their diets.

Corn's influence still can be seen in Hispanic foods and holiday dishes.

"We often think of tacos, tortillas and tamales as traditional cuisine in the Southwest," Dickerson said. "All of them are made from Indian flour corns -- usually white, yellow or blue."

Posole is a favorite corn dish during the holidays. Similar to hominy in the South, posole is made by soaking corn in a lime solution to loosen the skins. The corn is then rinsed and cooked with pork, chile and seasonings to create the spicy stew.

Chicos are a less well-known food, made by harvesting corn when kernels are in the milk stage, then roasting it in the husks overnight in an adobe oven or horno. The following morning, husks are removed and the ears are dried on a tin roof or hanging from shed rafters. Dried kernels are used in holiday stews and special dishes during the year.

Corn's versatility means diners can look forward to new foods, Dickerson said. Blue corn pancakes, muffins and cornflakes are some of the recent twists on this ancient staple.