Thursday, June 19, 2014

Off the Beaten Path: The Corn Grinder

Hello Readers...
Sorry it has been a little while since my last post.  As a local urban gardening coordinator and new grandma, I have had a few things taking me away from my writing.  Thanks for reading and commenting on some of my old stories during my haiatus!

La Molina.  Whether the curved base and rolling stone, or the electric grinding machine, or the even the building which houses the grinding machine, it most often seems to be called La Molina.

If you look in the dictionary or come from another Spanish speaking culture, you probably use el molino as the translation for "corn grinder."  I wonder about this, why in El Salvador the corn grinder took on the feminine article.  It seems appropriate and respectful of the hands of the women, who for centuries have passed hours rubbing or cutting kernels from the cob and more hours moving stone over stone to grind the kernels into masa to make tortillas or pupusas.

Corn is life, in El Salvador as in so many cultures of the Americas.  In the United States, people eat corn all the time without realizing it - much has been written about the presence of high fructose corn syrup and corn derivatives in processed foods.  In El Salvador, people in the countrysides and people in the cities alike have a closer connection to the golden grain that sustains them.  Preserving the livelihood of small corn farmers and preserving native varieties of corn from being swallowed up by multi-national agri-businesses is one of the advocacy issues on which the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and its partners focus, and much could be written about these issues.

Grains of corn are planted in small patches and large fields.  The maĆ­z grows tall and produces new cobs of pale yellow grain.  The cobs of corn or elotes are ripe in August, typically.  They are picked and the cooked corn is eaten right off of the cob, or cut kernels are stirred into a sweet, milky corn beverage - atol de elote.  Most often, the kernels are cut from the cob and placed into plastic bowls.  Children often carry the bowls of corn to the grinding machines.  For twenty or twenty-five cents, the grinder will pour the kernels into the top of the grinder and carefully scoop the corn paste away from the blades.  The children carry their bowls filled with wet corn dough home where mothers and grandmothers make tortillas, pupusas  or tamales.

Women who make tortillas, pupusas or tamales to sell will often carry large metal tubs of corn on their heads, walking carefully so as not to lose any of the sticky masa (dough) as they navigate the pathways or streets back to their homes.  It's impressive.

Corn is dried for use after the harvest is over.  Corn is often left to dry in the fields,  The stalks are broken and bent over so the rain will run off of the ears of corn and it will not rot.  Bean plants climb the corn stalks.  When the beans are harvested, then so is the dried corn.  The cobs are placed into big net bags.  Families with a large harvest will rub the corn from the cobs and gather it on a big tarp.  It is laid out in the sun to dry completely.  Sometimes the kernels are put out along the side of the roads, drying and slightly roasting on the hot pavement.  This corn is often mixed with sorghum to feed chickens.

Rubbing the kernels off of a dry corn cob is not easy.  It requires a calloused thumb.  The dry corn is carried to the molina in the same way that the wet corn is carried.  The grinder receives the dry kernels and expels the maseca or corn flour.  It is difficult to replicate the flavor and texture of Salvadoran pupusas  in the US.  The corn flour is somehow different.

It is good to spend a little time, walking with the Salvadoran children or women, walking the path to the corn grinding house, hearing the loud hum of the grinder, and smelling the fresh scent of wet, ground corn.  In some ways the corn grinder seems to be at the heart of the community.