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South Carolina grain seller treks to Oaxaca to find ancestors of state's whiskey and grits

If you think watching grass grow is dull, cast your gaze upon a corn cob lying in the dirt.

Spoiler alert: Nothing is going to happen. The cob won’t sprout ravishing blossoms. It won’t plant itself and shoot up a new stalk. A fallen ear of corn is helpless, which is just the way man planned it.

It wasn’t always like this. Teosinte, the wild Mexican grass that sits atop corn’s family tree, is a scrappy, self-reliant plant. When its husks are plucked, the tasty seeds contained within them tumble out, settling into the soil to await germination and growth. That’s a good deal for teosinte, but disappointing for the forager who thought she’d come across supper. If she needed enough kernels to make meal for muffins, she’d have to kneel down and gather thousands of scattered seeds one-by-one.

About 8,000 years ago, people living in modern-day Mexico set out to improve the situation. Their precise methods have been lost to time, although scientists speculate they started by popping hard-shelled teosinte seeds, which is an image to sock away for when you next put a tub of Orville Redenbacher’s Movie Theater Butter Popcorn in the microwave. Whatever their process, they gradually tamed teosinte. Once the plant stopped throwing its seeds willy-nilly, it was fully domesticated. Man had made maize.

That moment of creation eventually spawned the hushpuppies that curl up against fried fish and sweet coleslaw; the battered corndogs clasped by kids at the county fair; Frogmore stew; cornbread dressing; shrimp-and-grits and NASCAR.

“All of the good grits you can get at Whole Foods are ‘plantation-style,’” says Martha Willcox, a Mexico City-based corn researcher who spent a decade at North Carolina State University; she buys grits on trips back to the U.S., since they’re not sold in Mexico. “But grits goes further back. Southern grits link all the way back to Mexico.”

Still, there was a downside to the genetic machinations that facilitated Southern cooking. Corn is wholly dependent on humans for its survival, as the pathetic sight of a cob on the ground demonstrates. And now the 59 cultivars of maize that started it all, along with the farmers who grow them, are in extra need of assistance.

Cultivating corn know-how

Most crops are choosy about potential mates. Wheat, for example, is self-pollinating, so a single stalk can handle reproduction by itself. Corn, by contrast, is a major player.

“It is wildly promiscuous,” says Willcox, Maize Landrace Coordinator at The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Each corn tassel releases thousands of pollen grains, which then waft through the air until they find silks of other plants awaiting fertilization. The pollen doesn’t follow a charted pathway. The wind can take grains in any direction, and the hot-to-trot silks don’t care where they came from.

Wind pollination is an efficient way to make more corn, but it’s a constant headache for growers who want to protect the purity of the crop they’re raising. A type of corn that has survived relatively unchanged for millennia is defenseless against pollen from a genetically modified strain, dead set on knitting its lab-made qualities into the native breed’s offspring.

Traditionally, corn farmers have fended off the threat of contamination by growing certain cultivars in certain places at certain times. But at the very moment that Mexico’s heirloom corn is losing ground to hybrids given away by big seed companies, the nation is rapidly losing the keepers of its corn knowledge.

In Mexico, there is no financial support system for small-scale farmers, whether backed by banks or the government, so there’s no opportunity to take out a loan when a hurricane pounds a cornfield. If a family’s eldest son loses his leg to a tractor accident, or maize weevils chew through their harvest, the only recourse is for one of the children to head north in search of work, perhaps landing a dishwashing job at a U.S. restaurant.

Doña Ignacia Velasco, who grows corn in the Oaxacan village of Santa Ana Zegache, has said goodbye to nine of her children. She hasn’t seen any of them since they left, although they all dutifully send money home.

“Because of the human nature of corn,” Willcox says, corn can’t thrive absent people who know how to grow it.

“We can keep seeds in a bank, but that’s just a tiny piece. All of these young people are leaving, and that’s not sustainable. For both Mexican and American cultures, it would be good if these people had a specialty market that values not just this corn, but these people.”

Answering the call

Glenn Roberts has played the part of grain hero before. The founder of Anson Mills in Columbia devoted years to putting Carolina Gold rice back into circulation, and has since sidelined in reviving various wheats, buckwheats and oats. He was primed for the corn call.

Roberts started chasing heirloom corn varieties around the South back in 1995, but it took the 2014 opening of Cosme in New York City to get him thinking about their Mexican ancestors.

Enrique Olvera’s restaurant contracted with a California company buying directly from Oaxacan growers to provide its corn, which landed on guest tables in the form of warmed single-origin tortillas. As Roberts’ friend put it, “This is a game changer. Shouldn’t we be able to enjoy this stuff anywhere in America?”

To Roberts, that’s a rhetorical question. He was immediately intrigued, in part because he’s a fervent believer in protecting the world’s food supply by putting more crops in the mix. He’s also a disciple of flavor, a quality that didn’t interest 20th-century corn developers as much as disease resistance and yield.

“John Doe just wants to have a good time, maybe not think about any of this, but multicolored grits might be more fun in a bowl,” he says, citing the spectrum of flavors unlocked by diversity. Or to state it more plainly: “A bowl of spectacular grits is better than a bowl of bland grits.”

Fortunately, Roberts by this point has developed a formula for turning neglected foodstuffs into available ingredients with artisan cachet.

The storyline never plays out in exactly the same way, because neither people nor the weather are predictable, but if all goes according to plan, Roberts first finds someone with a stash of the desired seed. It could be a professor who inherited a specimen collection, or a farmer whose family has bucked trends for six generations.

Then he turns the seed over to scientists for genetic testing and cultivation advice. And while work is under way to establish the latest grain’s history and secure its future, Roberts is out talking up the ingredient to chefs and other hand-picked industry players, ensuring a market for it. It would be relatively easy to transplant the system to corn-growing regions of Mexico, Roberts thought.

His confidence was based on the magos.

Meet the magos

“Glenn keeps talking about the magos,” Scott Blackwell of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling Co. said before he and co-owner Ann Marshall joined Roberts for a three-day Mexican maize tour arranged by Willcox.

Blackwell and Marshall, who are husband and wife, were one of three sets of business partners invited on the January trip. Roberts also recruited a pair of D.C. investors who are now selling pedigreed herbs and olive oils online, and two men who run an environmental education center in southern California.

According to Willcox’s itinerary, the stakeholders would feast on sheep slow-roasted in a pit lined with maguey leaves; sip atole alongside Zapotec speakers and breakfast on Doña Ignacia Velasco’s cracklin’-bathed tamales goosed with carrizo cane, a practice specific to her village.

Before any of that, though, they’d meet the magos, or magicians, of the maize in a drafty classroom at a state-run center for agricultural research. INIFAP is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Vegetable Lab on Savannah Highway, although it’s nearer in appearance to the boxy central-courtyard high schools that lots of American cities built in the 1970s.

“How do you decide who is a magos?” Willcox said in her introduction to a series of PowerPoint presentations in Spanish. “They are the four names right now considered to be experts at the national level. They are known for understanding the diversity of maize.”

In short, these were going to be Glenn’s guys: The scientists who would share the secrets of their germplasm banks, and help solve the many mysteries that surround maize. Yet as each mago spoke, the mystery stack grew taller.

“We don’t know what the distribution was when the Spaniards came,” Fernando Castillo Gonzalez said, adding that it’s equally unclear what their livestock did to disperse corn seeds. Later, in response to a question about genetics: “We don’t know exactly.” And then, in response to a question about how corn traveled: “We need to do lots of research. We have done little pieces of research. I think there are lots of things to do yet.”

Only so much can be done without money, and Mexico doesn’t devote much of it to agricultural research. But from a scientific standpoint, progress has also been inhibited by protective attitudes in a county where corn is synonymous with identity. Man is corn, and corn is man. Even a magos isn’t inclined to blab to a bunch of foreigners about the village where he found an ear with fetchingly striped red kernels, crowded together like armadillo’s teeth.

'What's really going on here?'

That became apparent to Roberts when the group went outside to survey examples of Mexico’s 59 landraces, neatly sorted into flat-bottomed straw baskets. There continued to be more questions than answers, a scenario that was repeated the next day at another INIFAP campus, where Flavio Aragon Cuevas put a selection of his collected corns on a display table.

“We went up and down those tables with those phenomenal plants, and I wished I could just tackle Flavio and say, ‘What’s really going on here?’” Roberts said after returning to the U.S. “Nobody wanted to talk about it. I gave up.”

But Roberts moves quickly, and his giving up morphed into hope at Don Angel Garcia’s home.

Garcia and his wife, Marta, live in San Marco Tlapazola, a small Oaxacan village known for its red clay pottery. Their daughter is a professional tortilla maker and tejate champion. The lumpy iced beverage of toasted corn, fermented cacao and mamey pits is hailed throughout the region for its comforting flavor and health benefits. At least, Garcia hails the latter, effusively.

“No soda,” Garcia says of his regime for looking younger than his 67 years. “Only water or tejate!”

Despite his youthful appearance, Garcia has the grandfatherly quality of revering something that’s usually taken for granted. He’s tickled by the story of a gringo who drank tejate and stayed full for two days. “Tejate is for us people who work in the field,” he says proudly, adding, “It’s amazing all you can do with corn.”

At the urging of Roberts and his corn-fixated crew, Garcia elaborated, describing ways to turn white corn into coffee, and yellow corn into cookies. Now Garcia is wrestling with red corn. The breed he grows doesn’t keep its distinctive hue when it’s nixtimalized and made into masa. Since red tortillas command a higher price, he’s thinking about mimicking the color with beet juice.

It sounds like magic.

“There’s been an unending series of people who have an idea to do business (involving) the Zapotecs,” Roberts says. Garcia, for example, initially sold corn to the operation that worked with Cosme, but he hasn’t heard from its buyers lately.

“But what does Angel really want to do? Let him do his business. You go down there thinking you’re going to do something for somebody, and they end up doing more for you.”

Finally, Roberts had found his magos. Perhaps there’s still time, he thought, for Southerners to reckon with the debt they owe Mexico before its foundational corns disappear.

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Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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