The only native American cereal grain, corn is believed to have originated in Mexico or Central America. It constituted the staple food of pre-Columbian civilizations as far back as primitive times. Archeological remains discovered in south Mexico and dating back over 7,000 years provide the earliest traces of a meal made from small ears of corn! Mayan, Aztec and Incan mythology contain abundant references to corn; it was also used by these civilizations in religious ceremonies, as a form of currency, fuel, construction material, and to make jewelry and tobacco (from the silky threads).
Early colonists were attracted by the presence of this cereal grain, which the natives had adapted to various climatic and soil conditions. It was introduced into Europe in the 15th century. Corn remains a very important commodity in present-day America.
Corn grows on a robust annual plant that can attain a height of 1.8 to 3 m (6 to 10 feet). The kernels are borne on ears of corn measuring about 15.25 to 30.5 m (6 to 12 in) in length. Each ear has numerous long slender threads, and can contain between 750 and 1,000 kernels. The kernels can be yellow, white, orange, red, purple, blue, black or brown, according to the variety.
There are many different corn varieties: some of them are used as livestock feed, others are grown for human consumption and some decorative types are inedible.
The United States is the largest corn-producing country, followed by China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and India.
Corn has a wide array of uses as a vegetable. It can be cooked with or without its husk and is sometimes wrapped in aluminum foil before being cooked in the oven or on the barbecue. Other suitable cooking methods include boiling, steaming and microwaving. Corn on the cob is traditionally eaten flavored with butter or salt, and is usually a summer must-have in North America.
Corn is also used to make oil, flour (for cakes, muffins and breads), cornstarch (to thicken sauces, for example) and cornmeal (to make tortillas and polenta).
Popcorn is made from a primitive variety of corn that has small hard ears and kernels. The endosperm of this type of corn is much larger in proportion to its weight than that of other varieties, resulting in a higher starch content. When exposed to extreme heat, the moisture of the endosperm is converted into steam and the pressure causes the hull of the kernel to burst, exposing the inner part, which forms a crisp and puffy mass.
Popcorn is eaten plain or flavored with butter and, if desired, salt and spices. It can also be eaten with a caramel coating.