I arrive at the field where my shaman friend, Francisco, grows corn, beans, and squash for his family. An alux (supernatural Maya land guardian) protects this sacred land where the Chan family has been growing this magical trio for generations. At first glance, the land looks like an overgrown field of wildflowers and long grasses. But on closer inspection, I see bright orange squash blossoms bedecking wide-leaved vines that cover the ground and tiny white bean flowers peeking from more delicate vines that climb what appear to be tall thick grasses but are actually corn stalks, pushing up into the sun where they will eventually bear ears of white, yellow, and rosy red corn.
Some call it The Three Sisters. Corn, beans, and squash, all growing together in a symbiotic relationship. The shallow roots of the corn draw the nitrogen they need from the soil as the deep tap roots of the beans dig deep, both replacing the nitrogen and stabilizing the lanky corn stalks. The bean vines then reach for the sun, winding their way up the stalks and anchoring the corn, providing protection from damage during strong winds. And the wide, deep green leaves of the squash spread out over the ground, providing shade in the heat, keeping the ground moist, and preventing weeds from sprouting up and stealing the vital nutrients from the soil.
This ancient companion-planting technique can produce three times as much corn per acre as the more modern planted rows of single crop farming. In addition, it provides vegetables, much needed for health and rounding out the diet of the Maya farmer and his family. Together, these three plants are the foundation of Maya farming deep in the heart of the Yucatan.
I visit with Francisco’s family to learn more about the story of the corn. Angela, his wife, shows me where they store the corn after it is harvested. There is enough to last for an entire year, all piled together in a hut made of sticks and covered with a tarred roof. The heat inside the building helps to dry the corn so that it will be well preserved. Then she takes me out into the sunlight in the center of their family compound where we find a large bucket, filled with dried corn covered completely with water. She explains that, before cooking, the kernels need to soak with a bit of pickling lime (Calcium hydroxide) until they are rehydrated and begin to shed their outer skins so they can be ground into flour.
Then we dip into the shade of her traditional round Maya kitchen, dark and cool with thin rays of diffused light stealing in through the irregular spaces between the thick cut branches that were used to build the structure. She shows me the brick-red painted metal grinder she uses to hand grind the corn. It has been in her family for a generation, new since the time when they only used the molcajete--a mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock.
After the corn is ground, it is mixed with water and salt to make the soft masa dough Angela will use to both feed her chickens and pigs and make into the small, rustic tortillas that are served hot off the flat, open-fired pan with every meal.
The tortillas are delicious! Smokey from being cooked over a fire, piping hot, and full of flavor. Never have I had such tortillas from a grocery store, not even from the tortilleria where they make piles and piles of them every morning for Mexican families who are on the run and restaurants who serve them to both locals and to tourists from all over the world. This is the destiny of the corn, grown in close company with beans and squash. This is foundational to the Maya way of life. This is connection to the earth and the winds and rains, to the sun and the soil. This is connection to family and sweat and to life itself.
This is the Corn.
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Hugs and Butterflies,