Corn has become an activity and identity as much as an ingredient in the United States. It is the star of summer barbecues, grilled and golden, glistening and glittery with butter and salt. It is the setting of autumn’s agri-tainment as people of all ages navigate stalks of the stuff mowed into mazes. It is around us all year long as syrup in countless foods that are not remotely reminiscent of corn, in the ethanol that powers our cars, and the petroleum-free plastics of our compostable party plates. It covers 90 million acres of American land. Corn is, in fact, quintessentially and originally American, but of an America not codified by British men or named for an Italian man — corn was here long before they arrived.
It was around 10,000 years ago that native peoples of Mexico first domesticated corn and around 500 years ago that it was first transported away from the Americas. Since then, corn has been adopted into the cuisines of countless countries. In 2023 — a time of globalization, when sharing between cultures is easier than ever and losing the nuances that make those cultures unique is almost inevitable — three cookbooks have entered the world to inspire a respectful reflection on the origins of this wild grass-turned-global commodity. Written by three women of Native or Latin American heritage, each book is a celebration of corn and an invitation to retrace its culinary traditions through cooking.
Sandra A. Gutierrez
Knopf, October 2023
As with Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky, Gutierrez’s Latinísimo is organized by ingredient, of which corn comes first. It also takes a place of honor on the cookbook’s front cover and plays a significant role in uniting the vast expanse of the 21 diverse countries and cultures contained within its pages. The corn chapter is the only one to be subdivided — with specific individual attention given to nixtamal, tortillas, and arepas — showing the endless capacity of corn and its caretakers to adapt over time and across landscapes. At its start, Gutierrez provides a brief overview of the history of corn that spans thousands of years to arrive at her vegetable garden, where she continues the milpa tradition of growing it with squash and beans (known together as “the three sisters” in Indigenous cultures).
Gutierrez, who was born in the U.S. and raised in Guatemala, draws on her own memories of growing up with freshly ground masa to create a collection of recipes featuring corn and other essential Latin American ingredients that convey a sense of having been invited into someone’s home to share a meal. Her cookbook is full of food that is crave-inspiring and approachable — regardless of the reader’s background — with advice for keeping things simple, as well as in-depth information for those who want to dive deeper into certain ingredients and techniques.
Lois Ellen Frank with Walter Whitewater
Hachette Go, August 2023
Frank divides Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky into sections based on what she refers to as “The Magic Eight: The Plants That Native Peoples Shared with the World” and dedicates the first chapter to corn, which she calls “the most important ingredient in Native American Cuisine.” She traces the story of corn back over millennia to its wild grass ancestor, teosinte, and illuminates its intersection with the story of humanity, demonstrating that neither would exist as they are today without the other.
Frank’s recipes are plant-based and rooted in Native traditions, often with a “modern twist” that represents the creative choices of both Frank, who is of mixed heritage, and her culinary advisor, Walter Whitewater, who is Diné and a member of the Navajo Nation. Their chapter on corn demonstrates its incredible versatility as whole kernels and milled flour, transforming from tortillas to tamales, cornbreads to pastas, soups to sweets. Along the way, Frank shares personal anecdotes and insight into creation narratives and spiritual rituals that reveal the importance of corn to Indigenous communities as much more than merely a food source. The book concludes with a source guide for Native foods, which offers readers an opportunity to support and engage directly with the people who have stewarded a diverse array of corn varieties (and the rest of the Magic Eight seeds) over generations.
Ryland Peters & Small, July 2023
According to Venezuelan folklore, every Venezuelan child is born with an arepa under their arm. Irena Stein, a native of Venezuela herself, shares this information at the outset of her first cookbook, followed by a dedication to the “approximately seven million Venezuelan citizens [who] have left their land due to the circumstances in their home country” over the past decade. In this way, readers are immediately introduced to the integral role of the arepa (and, therefore, corn) in Venezuelan culture and how it has traveled the world in recent years to places like Baltimore, Maryland, where Chef Stein serves them at her restaurant, Alma Cocina Latina.
The basic arepa recipe that is the start and heart of this cookbook is based on a culinary tradition with more than a thousand years of history in Venezuela, which is in turn based on millenia more of cooking and consuming maize. Stein encourages others to partake in these traditions by combining cornmeal and a few simple ingredients into the arepa dough that, when cooked for a few minutes, will make a warm, round bread that fits in the palm of your hand. The pages that follow offer dozens of variations on this recipe that are sometimes savory, sometimes sweet, and suitable for any meal of the day (many of which are vegan and gluten-free). As indicated by the title, the recipes incorporate both traditional Venezuelan ingredients and modern international influences, as fillings for the finished arepas and as added elements within the dough. For those new to Venezuelan cuisine, the recipes and the photography (also by Stein) incite interest in the naturally perfect pairings of corn with other ingredients that thrive in the tropical environment of Venezuela, such as fried green plantains, fresh coconut, and seafood.
Elena Valeriote is a writer of stories about food, farming, culture, and travel that explore the connection between people and place. Her work has appeared in publications including Gastro Obscura, Modern Farmer, and Life & Thyme.