Dinner in 1491: An Appreciation of the Americas’ Bounty

Pretty much everyone has an opinion about Columbus Day. Some folks use it as an occasion to celebrate their Italian heritage, others as a day to mark the “discovery” of the New World by Europeans. Still others feel that the day is in bad taste and insulting to the indigenous peoples who were already living in this hemisphere long before those three Spanish ships stumbled upon them. I’m going to recuse myself from the political debate and simply say that the celebration of Columbus Day is lasting proof that in the long run it really is better to be lucky than good.

However, one fact is indisputable. The American continents were rich in an astonishing variety of native foodstuffs that changed the palate of not merely the Europeans who settled here, but of the entire world. Imagine Italian food without rich tomato sauces or golden corn-based polenta. What would the diet of Britain be like in the absence of staples like potatoes and pumpkins or Spanish cuisine without piquillo peppers and other palate-tickling capiscums? Therefore, I decided to use the day to do a little research into these foods, the people who ate them and the cultures that gave us so much delicious bounty.

The Book

1491: New Revelations of the Native Americans Before Columbus is a 2005 non-fiction book by American author and science writer Charles C. Mann about the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann’s central argument is that the native people of the Americas were far more numerous, possessed more advanced cultures and controlled their natural environment to a degree that has previously been underestimated by scholars.  Using a variety of new studies and referencing recent advances in research technology, Mann asserts that the general trend among scientists is to acknowledge:

That population levels in the Native Americans were probably higher than traditionally believed among scientists and that humans probably arrived in the Americas earlier than thought, over the course of multiple waves of migration to the New World (not solely by the Bering land bridge over a relatively short period of time);

The level of cultural advancement and the settlement range of humans was higher and broader than previously imagined, encompassing vast urban centers and technologies that were uniquely adapted to the specific requirements of their inhabitants and inventors.

The New World was not a wilderness at the time of European contact, but rather that it was a cultivated environment which the indigenous peoples had altered over many generations, mostly through the use of fire. This technique allowed for the selective growth of edible plants which required more sunlight and the tasty herbivores that flocked to nibble on them.

Although there is no consensus about these issues, and Mann acknowledges controversies, his book paints a vivid picture of continents teeming with human life and bearing the mark of mankind’s presence in their flora and fauna. According to his contention, as the Europeans spread slowly across the continent, they encountered the only vestigial remenant of recently collapsed societies, the flourishing indigenous populations having succumbed to a combination of infections spread by the colonists and associated privations stemming from these plagues.

In honor of this image of a land overflowing with an abundance of carefully cultivated plants and animals, I decided to create a meal fashioned from the native foodstuffs of this continent.

The Food


I chose to create a stew of giant corn flavored with mixed chile peppers, onions, tomatoes and pork (which is standing in for the more likely rabbit – as domesticated swine arrived only with the Europeans.) A meal like this relies upon dried kernels of  Giant White Corn otherwise known as Cuzco Corn. This varietal is exclusively grown high in the Andes Mountains of Peru called the Sacred Valley of the Inkas. hybrid of corn grows into large kernels- roughly 15cm and is common in Mexican cooking.  Giant White Corn is referred to as Maiz Mote Pelado for Spanish foods or Hominy for southern U.S. foods and is often used in many recipes to be cooked and served in the same manner as dried beans.  So really? HOW giant is this corn?

OMG! GIANT corn!!

This is a piece of soaked Giant Corn next to a kernel of the more recognizable sweet corn. As you can see, the Giant Corn is roughly 4 times the size of the sweet corn. That’s pretty darn big! What actually made this corn the nutritional backbone of an indigenous diet was a revolutionary process called nixtimalization – where the dried kernels were soaked in an alkaline solution of lime and ash and the skins removed. Nixtimalized corn was crucial in the early Mesoamerican diet, as unprocessed maize is deficient in free niacin and essential amino acids, which can result in nutritional diseases like Pellagra and Kwarshiakor. However, Maize cooked with lime provided niacin in this diet. Beans, when consumed with the maize, provided the amino acids required to balance the diet for protein. Ironically, in the United States, European settlers failed to adopt the nixtamalization process, despite the fact that corn became a staple among the poor of the southern states. This led to endemic pellagra in poor populations throughout the southern US which only ended with the fortification of wheat flour and other staple foods in the early 20th century.

four kinds of capiscums

I was initially a bit dubious about the unknown flavor profile and possibly starchy texture of the corn, (unjustly it turns out!) Fearing that it would be bland, rubbery and unpalatable I opted to season the stew with a variety of strongly flavored native American vegetables such as chiles, sweet peppers, onions, garlic and tomato. It turns out that the results were outstanding. This rich braise was served with accompaniments of raw diced onion, diced red chile, and a chiffonade of cilantro to bring freshness, heat and crunch to the dish. A squeeze of lime provided a bright acid counterbalance to the unctuous rich broth and meltingly soft pork. Corn tortillas were useful to sop up the juices and are another native food that may well have appeared on ancient American tables.  

table setting

Ultimately, my exploration of unusual indigenous foodstuffs was more than satisfying . It was an enlightening experience that served to underscore the richness of flavor and ingredients provided by our native larder. Furthemore, I’ll argue in favor of Giant Corn and urge you to give this odd, and somewhat ungainly grain a fair try. After all, it is part of the lovely and varied food heritage we have all inherited as the very newest Americans.


Giant corn and pork stew with mixed capiscums

  • 2 Cups dried Giant white Corn
  • 1.5 lbs (one package) bone-in pork such as ribs, neckbones, or shanks
  • 1  large onion – diced
  • 3 plump cloves garlic- minced
  • 2 fresh cubanelle peppers – diced
  • 2 fresh red chiles (or more to taste) – diced
  • 1 fresh poblano pepper (or more to taste) – diced
  • 1 small can of diced tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp olive or canola oil
  • 1 tbsp Goya Adobo seasoning
  • 1 tbsp Mexican Oregano
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

The night before cooking bring enough water to cover corn by 3 inches to a boil – pour in corn and remove from heat. Soak, covered until 3 hours before desired serving time.

Drain and rinse corn. Fill pot with enough water to cover corn by three inches and bring to a boil.

In a sautee pan – heat oil until shimmering, add pork pieces and brown well on all sides. Add pork pieces to boiling corn and reduce heat to strong simmer.

To the oil in the sautee pan, add onions, garlic and diced peppers.  Cook until onions are transparent and vegetables are tender. Add Adobo, cumin, chili powder and oregano. Cook for 5 more minutes.

Pour vegetable mixture into pot with corn and pork. Add tomatoes, bay leaves plus ample salt and black pepper.  Simmer this mixture for 2.5 hours or until corn is very soft and pork is falling from the bones.

Serve in deep bowls accompanied by warm corn tortillas and garnished with fresh radishes, diced onions, Red chiles and cilantro.

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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