Reviving Chapalote Corn

Through the careful work and collaboration of archaeologists, farmers, and food historians, the oldest maize variety on the continent is experiencing a revival in the American Southwest.

  • The Chapalote kernels grown in New Mexico were not only chocolate-colored, but a golden tan, yellow, and cream-colored as well. Different ears had different hues, with each ear falling on a gradient from dark chocolate to pale cream.
    Photo by Gary Paul Nabhan

It is a truly remarkable irony that most Americans have never even heard of the name of the oldest heirloom maize variety on the continent, Chapalote, let alone tasted its earthy, flinty cornmeal. Corn farming in the foodscapes within the present-day United States did not begin in the Midwestern or Southern “Corn Belts,“ nor along the East Coast where Pilgrims first encountered this new staple crop. Instead, the oldest evidence of maize cultivation north of the Tropic of Cancer comes from a desert valley known as the Tucson Basin in southern Arizona, and near the Zuni and Hopi villages of northern Arizona.

Prehistoric cobs of a corn that is equivalent or close kin to today’s chocolate-brown kernels of Chapalote date to 4100 to 4200 years ago — far older than any place else north of Central Mexico. Furthermore, Chapalote was prehistorically grown in fields along some of the oldest and most extensive irrigation canals anywhere in the New World. It offers us a tangible taste of the history of one of the world’s most important crops for gardens, farms and food industries of all kinds.

A Distinctive Corn

Although once thought to be extinct north of the U.S./Mexico border, the country’s oldest “popcorn” has popped back into view, thanks to a number of farmers and organizations collaborating with Native Seeds/SEARCH on a heritage grain recovery project sponsored by the USDA’s Western SARE program. For the first time ever in the United States, Chapalote is being commercially grown and prominently featured in local food-oriented restaurants in Arizona, albeit on a modest scale. The heritage grain collaborative hopes to gradually increase foundation seedstock to provide farmers with enough Chapalote to produce sufficient yields so that chefs in its region of origin can use the heritage grain for polentas, cornbreads, pinoles, atoles and tortillas year-round. Already boarded onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste as an endangered place-based food that can be grown and prepared sustainably, Chapalote is already on the road to recovery.

But just what do we know about America’s most ancient heirloom maize variety? It was not adequately described in scientific literature until 60 years ago, when three corn experts associated with Harvard and the Rockefeller Foundation singled it out for further study:

“Chapalote is one of the most distinctive races of maize in Mexico. It is primitive in being not only a popcorn but also a weak pod corn. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Chapalote is its brown pericarp [kernel] color.”

Led by the great Mexican ethnobotanist Efrain Hernandez-Xolocotzli, they found it to be restricted to the coastal lowlands of Northwestern Mexico, just south of Arizona, where Uto-Aztecan tribes related to those in the U.S. Southwest continued to grow it into the drought years following the Second World War. Hernandez-Xolocotztli found that Chapalote could perform well even during relatively dry years, because it was early maturing, and needed little supplemental irrigation if planted with the first monsoon storms of the summer season. His experimental milpa field produced two, tapering, cigar-shaped ears per plant by mid- to late-October. Those ears had 12 rows of smooth, round, chocolate-colored kernels, which were sometimes partially “wrapped” in paper-like glumes, much like the famous tunicate pod corn that was sacred to many tribes in the Northwest Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.



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