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MAIZE: NATURAL HISTORY

cheese and pasta, have diversified the ingredients of this poor persons’ food and transformed it into an interna- tional favorite.

In China and Southeast Asia, maize is cultivated in rotation with other, more traditional crops like rice or millet, and sequential cropping (relay cropping) strate- gies permit a form of multiple-cropping that overlaps the life cycles of two or more crops. These methods made possible the generation of crop surpluses in Asia beyond those originally identified with the exclusive or traditional reliance on rice as a primary cultigen. In fact, maize is being used throughout Asia to supplement more tradi- tional crops by extending the growing season and ex- panding production potentials throughout the year. In addition, the production of maize fodder and feed for livestock has fueled the adoption of maize agriculture throughout the developing countries of Asia and Africa. Maize provides the world’s most cost-effective and high- est yield plant resource currently available for the pro- duction of livestock forage, fodder, and feed (Dowswell et al., 1996, pp. 27–28).

Old World dispersals. The cultural, economic, and po- litical impacts of the European discovery of maize were evident in the ensuing population boom that followed its introduction into the Old World. After 1492, maize rapidly diffused into Europe, Africa, and Asia and was successful in large part because it did not directly com- pete with existing grain crops such as rice, wheat, oats, millet, and barley. Maize was also suited to cultivation in otherwise poor growing conditions related to topogra- phy, soils, climates, aridity, and elevation. Significantly, maize also prospers in exceptionally wet climates unsuited to wheat or relatively arid regions unsuited to rice culti- vation. Moreover, maize has the additional advantage of rapid returns and twice the productive yield per unit of land of wheat.

The adoption of maize in Africa and China heralded a dramatic social and cultural transformation. Maize pro- vided a level of food surplus that permitted the expo- nential growth of populations. Whereas in Europe maize was seen as a substandard cereal grain, fit only for feed- ing the poor and hungry and livestock, in many areas of Africa and Asia maize came to dominate the agricultural economies of many nation-states. The productivity and efficiency of maize horticulture and its low production and transportation costs made it a cheap food for slaves captured and held by European and Arabic slave traders. Maize made possible the efficient and economical trans- port and exchange of horrific numbers of sub-Saharan Africans destined for the markets of Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas.

The African Connection

Although it remains unclear who first introduced maize to Europe, Africa, and the Old World more generally, a number of scholars now argue that the Portuguese colonies of Africa served as the initial conduit to the dif-

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fusion of maize in that hemisphere. Jean Andrews claims that maize, beans, peppers, squash, and turkeys diffused into the Balkans, or southeastern Europe, by way of Por- tuguese Africa, India, and the Ottoman Empire in the pe- riod following the voyages of Columbus (1993, pp. 194–204). So profound was the impact of maize on the African economy that, like Mesoamerica, culture and so- ciety, subsistence and settlement, political economy and gender relations, and the respective cuisines and culinary technologies of each of these vast regions were rapidly transformed to accommodate the adoption of maize and those human diasporas with which it was associated. The unique maize-based cultural complex of agricultural prac- tices, extensive settlement patterns, and storage, distrib- ution, and food processing technologies identified with maize cultivation in fact fueled much of the transforma-

tion in question. In Africa’s Emerging Maize Revolution,

Derek Byerlee and Carl Eicher acknowledge that the adoption of maize has been the primary engine driving the transformation of the African social, political, and economic landscape for the many societies that have been swept up in this new agricultural revolution.

More specifically, it is becoming increasingly evident that those agricultural practices identified with maize, such as swidden cultivation, extensive or shifting settle- ment patterns that are, in turn, identified with swidden systems, the processing of maize with basalt grinding slabs, the female domination of these labor-intensive food processing and storage traditions, and the emerging role of women in the maize-dominated marketplace have all played significant roles in the transformation of the African political economy. Moreover, given the fact that in many areas of Africa, much of the traditional African agricultural complex—centered on such crops as millet— has been displaced by maize has much to do with the changing face of African cuisine at the most fundamen- tal level of analysis, and more generally, at the interface of cultural change and transformation.

Africans prepare a maize porridge—called kpekple in

Ghana, bidia in Zaire, sadza in Zimbabwe, putu in Zulu- land, mealie in South Africa, and posho or ugali in East Africa—consumed by millions. Virtually no African coun- try has remained untouched by the diffusion and exchange of maize, and the agricultural practices on the African con- tinent range from the simple sowing of maize kernels along rivers and streams to the cultivation of maize in household gardens. While widespread, these traditional practices are primitive compared to the magnitude and intensity of agribusiness development and investment in commercially viable maize agricultural field systems.

Maize Procurement and Processing

Maize is seldom described outside of the so-called Mesoamerican triumvirate of maize, beans, and squash. Early Mesoamerican peoples planted these food crops to- gether, often planting beans and squash adjacent to maize so as to provide the former plants stalks on which to ex-

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