Maize, or Corn

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Maize, known in the United States as “corn” and among biologists as Zea mays, was domesticated in Mesoamerica some 9,000 years ago from a large grass called teosinte (Zea mexicana), which grows in open woodlands. Unlike the Old World cereals and the legumes, which human selection altered in relatively minor ways, corn is the result of several drastic changes in the structure of teosinte that concentrated pollen production at the top of the plant and female flower production—and cob and kernel production—along the main stalk. The large size of both plant and fruit made corn agriculture relatively easy, and corn quickly became the basic food plant of many other early American cultures. The Incas of Peru, the Mayas and Aztecs of Mexico, the cliff dwellers of the American Southwest, Mississippi mound builders, and many seminomadic cultures in North and South America depended on corn as a dietary staple. Columbus brought corn back with him to Europe, and within a generation it was being grown throughout southern Europe.