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David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Corn: Oft-overlooked Thanksgiving tradition

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

November 16,2023

minute read

dinner table with turkey and pie

(Credit: Pixabay)

The holiday season is filled with many traditions. The latter are important because they are part of a history that defines our past, shapes who we are today, and foretells how we likely will act in the future. In short, traditions form an important part of our social structure and personal identity.

Perhaps the main tradition associated with Thanksgiving is planning the menu for the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Over the years, there are certain foods that have become a traditional part of Thanksgiving, even though their presence at the first Thanksgiving is questionable. Ironically, traditional Thanksgiving staples of today indigenous to the Americas such as cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, candied yams (sweet potatoes), and pumpkin pie likely were absent at the first Thanksgiving. However, such was not the case with corn.

dipiciton of the people having a meal outdoors

Most historians agree that corn was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Held in 1621 after the completion of the fall harvest, the first Thanksgiving lasted for three days. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation of what was served at the celebration. Edward Winslow, one of the founders of Plymouth Colony, wrote the pilgrims planted 20 acres of Indian (flint) corn in the spring of the year and the crop was abundant. Therefore, corn undoubtedly was served at the first Thanksgiving, but not in the form we know it. Most likely the corn, being mature and dry, would have been removed from the cob and ground into cornmeal. The cornmeal then was boiled and pounded into a think mush that often was sweetened with molasses.

Corn (Zea mays) has been a part of Native American life as far back as records exist. The species often is divided further in the aforementioned flint corn (Zea mays var. indurata) and dent corn (Zea mays var. indentata). The two differ primarily by the shape and color of their kernels and hardness of their seed coat.

multi-colored corn next to yellow corn with pushed in kernals

Comparison of flint corn (left) with dent corn (right). (Credit: Pixaby)

The first Europeans to see corn growing were crew members of Columbus' ships in 1492. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in late fall of 1620, they found fields of corn stubble. Later, a Native American named Squanto of the Patuxet tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn. Indeed, corn played an invaluable part in the survival of early European settlers.

The corn which was introduced to the early settlers was not the corn we know today as sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. reguosa). Although this sugary type of corn occasionally was found in early plantings, it either was disliked by Native Americans or they were not able to perpetuate it with any regularity. A few tribes apparently did manage to grow and produce sweet corn, but it never became an important food source until after the arrival of European immigrants.

Although corn is native to the Americas, its origins are vague and have been the source of great speculation for many years. No plant like our current form of corn exists in nature. Therefore, it is a plant that exists only because of human intervention. The scientific designation for such a plant is "cultigen."

Through the study of genetics, scientists today believe that corn originated between 6,000 and 10.000 years ago in central Mexico from a wild grass called teosinte. The name teosinte is derived from the Nahuatl word tosintli which means "sacred corn." Teosinte, which still exists today, looks very different from modern corn. Its kernels are small and not closely packed like the kernels on ears of modern corn. Renowned geneticist and Nobel laurate Dr. George Beadle (1903-1989) believed that the difference between the genetic make-up of teosinte and modern corn is a mere five genes (or groups of genes).

cob of corn next to very small dark-colored cob of corn next to a pen for size reference on red background

Comparison of teosinte with modern corn. (Credit: Iowa State University)

Even the terms "corn" and "maize" are a source of confusion for many. To early writers and to much of the world today, corn is an English word meaning any edible grain, such as wheat or barley. It was natural, therefore, for early explorers to refer to the grain they found in the new world as corn. The Native American (Taino) word for corn was mahis, or maize. The latter means "our mother" or "she who sustains us." The word was picked up by Spanish explorers and used to refer to this plant wherever Spanish was spoken. Today, the word maize is used throughout continental Europe and many other countries to describe what early American settlers commonly called "Indian corn," or "corn" for short.

The Mayan civilization was thriving and growing corn in Guatemala 3,500 years ago, or more. Archeological excavations have unearthed specimens of cobs from cultured corn dating back to about 3,400 B.C. There are indications that the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples worshiped a maize god who they considered to be an important source of life and reproduction. Additionally, corn plants were used for purposed other than just producing grain. Columbus's crews found Native Americans smoking cigars made of tobacco in a wrapper of cornhusk. Cornstalks also were used to construct rudimentary shelters.

The development and widespread use of sweet corn is much more recent in occurrence. The first record of sweet corn in the Plymouth colony did not appear until 1779. Present-day types of sweet corn were not introduced until after 1850. A very rapid development of sweet corn varieties took place between 1850 and 1880. While there was continued improvement and more vigorous hybrids were developed, it was not until 1967 that another breakthrough was made. This was the discovery of a breeding line which produced varieties that were very sweet at eating maturity. In addition to being very sweet, hybrids of this parental line maintained high levels of sugar following harvest without a rapid conversion of sugar to starch. These hybrids became known as X-tra (super) sweet varieties.

cooked cobs of corn

Although known to Native Americans, sweet corn did not become popular in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. (Credit: Pixabay)

Since that time, additional improvements in sweet corn have occurred in the form of the development of varieties with more tender kernels, slower conversion from sugar to starch, and more vigorous vegetative growth. Please refer to 'The Search for Sweeter Corn' (https://ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2010/6/The-Search-for-Sweeter-Corn/) for a more detailed description of sweet corn improvement.

More American than apple pie, corn continues to play an important part in our economy as well as in our diet. As a nation, last year Americans consumed (in one way or another) approximately 12 billion bushels of corn. In celebration of our past heritage and to continue a tradition started in 1621, include corn as a part of your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In so doing, remember with thanks all of those who have been instrumental in passing on this versatile grain and excellent food source to us.

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REVISED: November 16, 2023