Real Mexican field corn flourishes near the Fremont BART
By Patricia Hayse Haller | Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
At first glance, the most remarkable thing about the Ramirez farm in Union City is that it is there at all. Just two blocks (less than a tenth of a mile) from the BART station in the central downtown district, the 14-acre farm is a green, growing island in a sea of apartment complexes and business parks. The simple wooden farmstand sits in a dirt parking lot next to the field at the busy intersection of Walnut Avenue and Guardino Drive. In summer, sunflowers and cosmos brighten the roadside, and tomatillo plants sprawl between the rows of peppers, tomatoes, and cabbages.
“There used to be a lot of farms over here. Not anymore,” says Ramon Ramirez, who runs the farm with help from his four grown children. Again and again people who stop tell him how surprised they are to see a farm right in the middle of the city.
But there is more being preserved here than the region’s farming heritage: Ramirez is steward to the only field of true Mexican corn in the area. This crop is intricately linked to Mexican history, agriculture, food, and family: it’s the kind of corn that has been used for centuries to make masa, the cornmeal dough out of which Mexican cooks fashion their tortillas and tamales.
“People don’t grow Mexican corn here,” says Ramirez. “In some areas, it’s hard to grow this corn because of the weather. The Central Valley is so hot that the corn is ready today, then the next day it is already too mature. It’s cooler here, so the corn lasts two weeks or more. And there’s no frost.”
The favorable conditions here allow Ramirez to start planting in March, and he keeps planting new rows until the middle of August. The first wave of corn is ready to harvest as early as July and the crop keeps coming right through November or even December, when many families gather for the traditional holiday tamale making.
Long-time residents of Union City, the Ramirez family started growing sweet corn there in 1980. Then, 10 years ago, they decided to try Mexican corn. Demand grew so fast that Ramon leased the 14-acre property in Fremont a few years later and planted 10 acres of it in corn.
“I know many of my customers for years,” says Ramirez. “As soon as they find out we’ve got Mexican corn, they come. And if you’ve got good corn, they keep coming back.” The edges of his eyes crinkle as he smiles. “I have good corn.”
Now, he says, “people come from far away: Redwood City, San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, even Sacramento.” They come by car and by BART. They come for a taste of the corn they remember from their childhood—a taste that reminds them of who they are and where they come from. “The food our mothers and grandmothers made; that is closest to our heart,” he says.
A Gift From The Gods
The history and culture of Mexico and of corn (more properly called maize) are inextricably entwined. Scientists believe that it was the ancient people of Central America who first domesticated corn’s primitive ancestor, a grass called teosinte. The Aztecs and Mayans revered corn as a gift from the gods, and the grain became a staple of both diet and trade throughout the Americas.
As maize cultivation spread through the continent, one variety developed a natural mutation that slowed the conversion of sugar to starch in its endosperm. Harvested young the corn was sweet and tender and it became prized by North American tribes, notably the Iroquois of the Northeastern seaboard. This sweet corn is what the Native Americans taught European settlers to grow. Today, its hybrid descendants—tweaked for maximum sweetness, longer shelf life, and disease resistance—dominate the market in the United States, where they are treated as a vegetable rather than a grain.
Pinto or Blanco Tierno?
Ramirez grows some sweet corn, along with row crops such as zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and a host of different peppers, including hard-to-find chile peppers like the super-hot chile de árbol. But the star attraction is real Mexican field corn. Ten feet tall, the Mexican corn towers over its shorter, sweeter cousin. While smaller quantities of the sweet corn are arranged at the farmstand with the vegetables, the real treasure is the longer, plumper ears piled in two large bins. One bin, labeled “pinto,” holds multi-colored ears with irregularly shaped kernels dry enough that Ramirez pops them off the cob with his thumb. These, he explains, are mainly dried and ground into meal to make rustic corn flatbreads and tortillas. The other bin is labeled “blanco tierno.” Ramirez pulls out an ear, uses a machete to cut off the stem end, and peels back the bright green husks to reveal large creamcolored kernels. Then he unfolds the husks to show off their freshness and width. This is the white Mexican field corn prized for making tamales.
Tamales are among the most celebratory foods of Mexico. Perhaps that’s because making them is often a party in itself. For many families, tamales are a tradition for feast days like Christmas and Day of the Dead, with everyone working assembly-line fashion to stuff, handwrap, and steam them. There are as many variations as there are grandmothers in Mexico, and everyone has their favorites.
“It’s a lot of work,” says Ramirez. “But it’s good family time.” Most Americans are familiar with tamales made with masa and stuffed with meat, chiles, and/or cheese. Masa (literally, ‘dough’) is a soft, sticky dough made from kernels of Mexican corn that have been dried, soaked in slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, the ‘lime’ listed in tortilla ingredients), rubbed to remove the outer husks, rinsed, ground, and then mixed with water. Because real Mexican corn is hard to find outside Mexico, and because the process described above is time consuming, dry or packaged masa harina (literally, ‘dough flour’) is more popular for tamales, and the wrappers are more commonly dried cornhusks that have been soaked in water.
Interestingly, the lime does more than soften the hulls. It actually gives the corn a nutritional boost by adding calcium, making it more digestible, and releasing the niacin (vitamin B) present in corn so it can be absorbed by the body. Scientists believe this method of soaking corn in lime—called nixtamalization—developed around 1,000 B.C. in coastal Guatemala before it spread throughout Central and South America and Mexico. The introduction of lime is also the reason that these cultures don’t generally suffer from pellagra, a disease caused by lack of niacin in the diet. In times past, corn-based cultures that didn’t nixtamilize their corn, like the rural American South, suffered greatly from pellagra, but the practice of enriching processed foods with niacin has made such deficiencies a rarity in modern times.
But not all tamales are made from masa nixtamal. Mexican corn is sweeter when it is freshly picked, and many regions of Mexico celebrate the harvest with sweet tamales made of otherwise-unprocessed ground fresh corn wrapped in the supple green husks and steamed on a platform of corncobs. In northern Veracruz, where they make ‘green corn tamales,’ the fresh corn tamales often include a green chili pepper. The fresh corn tamales de elote of Michoacan are stuffed with sweetened corn and served with Mexican sour cream and cotija, a dry and salty whole-milk cheese. Other versions call for additions such as a touch of cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon, or cheese. What makes all these dishes special (and hard to find north of the border) is freshly picked, locally grown Mexican corn, which is ground to a light and fluffy consistency.
“You can’t do this with sweet corn,” says Ramirez as he and his daughter, Gloria Urena, demonstrate grinding the fresh Mexican corn using an old hand-cranked grinder he pulls from a shelf at the farmstand. “Sweet corn kernels never get hard, so you can’t grind them.” Some recipes try to approximate the taste by mixing fresh sweet corn with store-bought masa, but for those who grew up on the real thing, it’s not the same.
“A lot of people tell me they used to take their vacation to go to Mexico to eat tamales,” says Ramirez. “Now, they come here.”
Patricia Hayse Haller is a freelance writer based in Pleasanton.