Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, May 1947
The Aztecs not only used popcorn as a food, they also used strings of it to decorate certain idols such as that of Tlaloc, who in one aspect or another was the God of Maize, the God of Fertility, and the God of Rain.
From Sahagún, the scholarly monk who recorded the history and customs of the Aztecs in the early years after the Conquest, we learn a good deal about popcorn. His account can be confirmed and supplemented from other early chronicles. The Aztecs not only used popcorn as a food, they also used strings of it to decorate certain idols such as that of Tlaloc, who in one aspect or another was the God of Maize, the God of Fertility, and the God of Rain. In a similar fashion today, one may find statues of the Virgin Mary with beautiful necklaces of snowy-white popcorn in little, out-of-the-way chapels in modern Mexico.
In the west of Mexico from Sonora to Jalisco, a totally different kind of popcorn is grown, and it is called by another name, maiz reventador, literally, exploder corn. It is a tall, handsome plant with long, wiry tassels and tough, narrow leaves, practically the extreme opposite of the little rice popcorns of Toluca. It has a long, narrow ear and tiny kernels, and the hulls are tough when the corn is popped, though the flavor is excellent. It is an ancient variety in this region, seldom seen in the big cities, not too common in the towns, but almost universal in little villages away from the main roads. It is used for popcorn balls and for ponteduro, a kind of brittle made with popcorn and various other goodies such as peanuts and squash seeds. As one travels north toward Sonora, maiz reventador becomes increasingly important as one of the main sources of pinole, a meal prepared by parching or popping the kernels, grinding them to a fine powder, and mixing it with sugar and various flavorings such as anise and cinnamon.
In Jalisco the use of pinole is more or less incidental. There it is the kind of thing country children fill up on in between meals, but in the back country of Sonora it becomes more and more important until it not only equals the famous Mexican tortilla, but may even outrival it in popularity and become the actual staff of life for the people. Apparently pinole made from maiz reventador has been the main food in this region for a very long time. In the beautiful public library of Guadalajara, among many other unpublished documents, there is an official account prepared in 1776 of a town in Sonora named San Miguel de Sahuaripa. It describes maiz reventador, calling it by that name, and goes on to say that it is used for pinole, which was made by toasting and grinding the aforesaid maize and was the common food of the land (para pinole que lo asen tostando dicho Maiz y mlindolo y es el Bastimento corriente de la tierra).
Significantly, it is in Ecuador, one of the most purely Indian of Latin-American countries, that popcorn still takes an important place in the diet. Two members of the wartime cinchona mission, Dr W. S. Steere and Dr. W. H. Camp, have brought back sample ears and detailed notes about its uses in the highland country around Quito. This Ecuadorean popcorn or canguil, to use the native name, is still quite another kind of maize than either the rice popcorn of Toluca or the maiz reventador of western Mexico. It has pointed kernels like the Toluca corn, but they are much bigger and are swollen at the base, tapering off abruptly to a sharp point. The ears are much longer and have fewer rows; if anything, they have more of the ear-shape of the reventador popcorns. The tassels of the Ecuador popcorn are different from both of the Mexican kinds. They are large and very much branched, with very small glumes. We are certain that this popcorn has been grown in Ecuador for a very long time, just as the other two kinds have in their regions. Similar ears of corn have been recovered from pre-Columbian graves in various parts of the South American highlands, and, as mentioned above, there are even some instances in which kernels of popped corn have been found with these ancient burials.
These three very different popcorns do not exhaust our catalogue of pre-Columbian varieties. The excavations of Junius Bird of the American Museum have unearthed a fourth and equally distinct type, from the coast of northern Chile. As a matter of fact, from the lowest level of his excavations at Arica, nothing but one small-kerneled variety was found. While we cannot be certain that it was popcorn, it is closely similar to popcorn types still grown at oases in that region, and it is significant that storage bags of pinole or some similar substance were recovered from these same levels.
For the present, such facts as these raise more questions than they answer. Instead of one primitive, small-kerneled variety, we have found at least four, three of them definitely tracing back to A.D. 1200 or earlier. The fourth variety is apparently just as old, but definite proof is not yet at hand.
The exploder corns of western Mexico accent some of the puzzles in tracing relationships between the American southwest and the civilizations of Mexico. We know these types are common in the
If all or part of the contacts between Mexico and our Southwest took place up the narrow Sonoran Corridor between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Gulf of Mexico, why were none of these distinctive popcorns carried on into Arizona and New Mexico?
The popcorns of the Orient raise an even larger question that of contacts between the Old World and the New. Various popcorns are grown in the Orient, mostly among very primitive peoples. How and when did they get there, and by what route? Professor H. H. Bartlett, of the University of Michigan, has brought back from Sumatra herbarium specimens of a small pearl popcorn that is grown by the peoples of Sumatra. It even has a ceremonial name, which would ordinarily indicate considerable antiquity. In northern Burma and south China, small-kerneled, flinty varieties are grown by primitive, pre-Chinese peoples; and in northern India there are accounts of such varieties being used in the preparation of a meal that sounds suspiciously like pinole. Can it be possible that corn, like the sweet potato, crossed the Pacific in primitive times, and if so in which direction did it travel? Our first survey of the facts about popcorn has brought together enough information to raise these questions. When a careful survey of the worlds popcorns has been completed, we shall be able to answer some of them.