For This Man, Corn Is More Than a Grain—It's Living History

Amado Ramírez Leyva buys maize from small farms for his restaurant in Oaxaca.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In America, corn politics is mired in subsidies, crop insurance, and soil conservation. As a commodity crop, it’s defined by per-bushel prices and per-acre yield—impersonal figures that speak more of the trading floor of the commodities exchange in Chicago than the black topsoil of the nearby farms.

In Mexico, however, where corn was first domesticated some 6,000 years ago, the personal is the political where maize is concerned. Unlike American farmers, many campesinos—the small holders that account for two-thirds of the country’s corn production—grow heirloom corn varieties that have been passed down through generations of farming families.

Not only are Mexico's indigenous corn varieties singularly well-suited for the water and heat of the land where they have flourished for ages—these types of corn tend to have flavor in spades too. That is only part of the reason why Amado Ramírez Leyva works exclusively with heirloom, or criollo, corn at his restaurant, Itanoni, in the city of Oaxaca. In another wonderful video from Perennial Plate, we see Leyva, who is Mixtec, standing in a field of corn, the plants looking slightly scragglier than their Iowan counterparts, explaining that the tradition of growing corn is intimately wrapped up in the story of his own ancestors. “So when I eat this,” he says in Spanish, “I eat with all the energy of my history.”

It doesn’t hurt that the tortillas he makes, imbued with so much cultural weight, are considered to be some of the best in the world.

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