Corn Soot Woman's Lament
and the deficiency of the language of deficiency
One of the women heard somebody crying. She said, “Listen, somebody is crying.” Just then the door opened and Corn Soot Woman came in crying. She said, “Nobody likes me to be with the corn ... I am fat but nobody has any use for me”…. The head woman of the society said, “Don’t ever separate her from the good corn. She is fat ; that is why she is what she is. She is the mother of the corn soot and you must put her in with the good corn whenever you shell it, in order that that too may be fat, as she is.” —from Tales of the Cochiti Indians, Ruth Benedict, Bureau of American Ethnology Report 98 (1931).*
I recently walked awhile with a friend whose child is undergoing radiation therapy for a rare brain cancer. We were talking about cooking, because my friend is a terrific and curious cook, and so that’s what we often talk about. Some diets seem to make radiation therapy more effective, and so his family has been experimenting with menus that balance calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrates in ways that are very different from modern norms. These diets often are described as lacking the full spectrum of crucial nutrients, and our talk turned to ancient foodways that addressed these deficiencies in creative and delicious ways.
One of the ancient dietary complexes we talked about was the maize-based regime of Pre-Columbian North America. Western understanding of these diets often emphasizes the nutritive “deficiency” of corn—in which certain nutrients, particularly niacin and essential amino acids, are not biochemically available—as a problem to be fixed. The best-known fix is the process of nixtamalization, in which corn is cooked or soaked in alkaline water, resulting in hominy and masa.
Nixtamalization probably originated in Guatemala and southern Mexico some four thousand years ago, when people began boiling corn with heated limestone rocks. Beans, domesticated later, also provide crucial amino acids (they also fix nitrogen in the soil, helping the corn plants to grow). These nutrients can be derived from meat, too. But there also is a common fungal parasite, known as corn smut or corn soot, which is able to fix the amino acids in maize. Corn smut is damaging in many ways—it blocks the cornstalk’s synthesis of chlorophyll, and diminishes crop yields—and it’s treated as an agricultural pest in modern, industrial-scale corn agriculture. But its fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, which erupt from ripe corn ears as blackened, swollen galls, are known as the delicacy huitlacoche in Mexico, and are widely available in many canned and dried forms.
Corn smut likely met some of corn’s nutritional deficiencies before bean culture was adopted across North America—in particular, among the ancestors of latter-day Puebloan peoples of the Four Corners region more than two millennia ago, before beans came into their diets. The people of this time—known to archaeologists as the Basketmaker II culture, whose ways predated the Anasazi in the Four Corners region—kept turkeys, but used them chiefly for feathers, not meat. Evidence from the Turkey Pen ruin, near Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument, show that up to 80 percent of their calories came from corn.
Corn-related forms of malnutrition like pellagra and kwashiorkor, often associated with so-called “primitive” conditions and lack of development, are much more frequently the result of famine conditions brought about by the politics and economics of modernity. Pellagra, in particular, a scourge in the American South in the early 20th century, was brought on by modernity: a combination of the industrial processing of cornmeal, which reduced its nutritive value; the intensification of cotton agriculture, which excluded many food crops from production; and the programmatic immiseration of rural people south of the Ohio River.
The nutritive effect of nixtamalization was not scientifically understood until the 1970s. So much of the scientific analysis of foodways uses frameworks of diet and deficiency. It might not be bad dietary science, but it doesn’t make much sense as history, as culture. The story of Corn Soot Woman, taken from the traditions of Cochiti Pueblo*, offers a very different logic for understanding lack and loss in foodways. Don’t shut her out. She makes the good corn fat. The ingenuity of myth is every bit as rich, but it begins not in deficiency, but community. For all its proliferative success, modern agriculture is deaf to Corn Soot Woman’s cry.
It’s also astonishing that, for all our human biochemical ingenuity bound up in human foodways, fungi so often turn out to have found the way first. My friend’s child wouldn’t benefit from huitlacoche consumption, alas—in fact, they’re trying to reduce the amount of lysine in his diet. But on our walk, I think, we were trying to ask what might be crying out for inclusion—how the pantry is a place for kin-making.
*Cochiti Pueblo, a community near the latter-day city of Albuquerque, is the current and ancestral home of the Kʾúutìimʾé people, whose stories were collected by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict in the early 1920s. You can donate to the Keres Children’s Learning Center, which is supporting Cochiti Pueblo families in maintaining, strengthening, and revitalizing their heritage language of Keres.
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