Episode Guide: Corn in Arizona Img

Corn is a sacred food for all indigenous tribes of Arizona, including the Tohono O’odham, Yoemi, Navajo, and Hopi. Capri learns how seeds are saved, visits a garden of living history that captures pre and post contact plants of the region and helps make blue corn cakes.

Indigenous Corn Traditions

Many of the original varieties of corn were lost since the time of colonization, but a handful of dedicated farmers and organizations are carrying on these traditions and creating a variety of memorable ancient and modern foods from the versatile flour-making maize.

Indigenous corn has provided sustenance to Native Americans for more than 5,000 years. There are over 500 different varieties of corn, and there have been successful efforts to resurrect many disappearing varieties.  

Gardener and educator Maegan Lopez comes from the small community of New Fields, Ariz., on the Tohono O’odham Nation at the edge of the U.S./Mexico boundary. She helps operate Mission Garden. A project by the nonprofit Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, Mission Garden serves as an educational hub where heritage crops and traditional agricultural techniques are showcased and refined through a blend of ancient wisdom and modern science. As Tucson’s first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, the garden honors the agricultural legacy of the Sonoran Desert, promoting sustainable local farming methods to address food insecurity, resource depletion, and climate change impacts.

Maegan shows us the garden and how it tells the story of how native peoples have sustained themselves through a sacred relationship with the land and its bounty. You can take a virtual tour of the Mission Garden here

Maegan also shows us how to cook a traditional O’odham dish called ga’iwsa (corn porridge) and modify it to make “Chicos,” into which the dish evolved after contact with Mexican, Spanish, and South American influences.

Ga’iwsa Basic Cooking Instructions

Use a 3 to 1 water-to-ga’iwsa ratio. Combine 3 cups of water and 1 cup of ga’iwsa in a saucepan, and bring to a rapid boil, stirring often. Then, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 to 35 minutes, continuing to stir frequently. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 5 minutes, and season with salt, butter, and cheese to taste. Optionally, top with steamed vegetables.

Chicos, which are dried kernels of sweet corn, regain a concentrated sweet roasted flavor upon rehydration, reminiscent of the most delicious summer corn, and great in stews with optional added flavors and meat. Chicos as a dish traditionally includes chili and tomatoes, and makes a delicious chili stew. An important ingredient to Chicos is the Chiltepin pepper, also known as “chile tepin” or “Chiltepine.” It’s a small, round or oval chile native to the wild regions of Northern Mexico and Southern United States. It is recognized as the only wild chili pepper native to the United States and is often revered as “The Mother of All Peppers.”

Chicos Chile Recipe

  • 2 cups chicos
  • 10 cups cold water
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Handful of cilantro, chopped
  • Chiltepin peppers, crushed (to taste)
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced

Cook Chicos: In a large pot, combine chicos with 10 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2-3 hours until tender.

Prepare Sauce: In a skillet, sauté onion and garlic until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook until softened. Season with salt and crushed chiltepin.

Combine: Drain chicos, mix with the tomato sauce, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Finish: Off heat, add lime juice and cilantro. Adjust seasoning.

Serve: Enjoy the Chicos Chile hot, as a stew or side dish.

Collecting, Saving & Resurrecting Ancient Seeds

Capri visits Native Seeds/SEARCH, a unique seed bank that has collected roughly 1,900 species of seeds from foods that grow (or once grew) in the arid Southwest. Native Seeds/SEARCH conserves and shares the seeds of the people of the desert Southwest and Mexico so that these arid-adapted crops may benefit communities and nourish a changing world.

Andrea Carter is the outreach agronomist and education manager that serves as a link between the seed bank and small-scale farmers across the Southwest. Andrea Carter shows Capri the seed bank where they house nearly 2,000 distinct species of food plants native to the southwest. Andrea explains the seed preservation effort and how biodiversity may be the key to ensuring our food supply survives our changing climate.

Resurrecting Yoemi Blue Corn

Capri visits Bill Robinson and Debbie Royals at the Crazy Chile Farm where Bill is growing a nearly lost Yoemi Blue Corn. He worked with Native Seed SEARCH to begin growing the corn for seed, which will be distributed to native growers throughout the area. Bill tells Capri why he wanted to grow this corn and how he got connected to Debbie who’s helping distribute the seeds to other native growers.

Bill and Debbie share how they grow, harvest, and turn the blue corn into cornmeal, and share Debbie’s grandmother’s blue corn cakes recipe. Debbie and Bill believe that if younger generations can learn to de-assimilate from colonial foodways and reconnect with their native traditions, they can find increased health and wellness

Blue Corncakes

  • ¾ cup blue cornmeal
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp white sugar
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 beaten egg
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ cup toasted pine nuts

Mix Cornmeal Base: In a medium bowl, combine blue cornmeal, salt, and sugar. Add boiling water and stir until mixed. Cover and let stand for a few minutes.

Prepare Wet Ingredients: In a cup, mix milk, egg, and melted butter. Stir this into the cornmeal mixture.

Add Dry Ingredients: Mix flour and baking powder together and stir into the cornmeal mix until just combined. Adjust consistency with milk if needed.

Cook Pancakes: Heat a greased cast iron skillet over medium. Pour about 2 tbsp of batter per pancake. Sprinkle pine nuts on top. Flip when bubbles form and cook until golden on the other side.

Serve: Enjoy immediately with maple syrup or fruit preserves.

Spiritual Baking with Blue Corn

Capri visits Rochelle Garcia (who is Navajo and Tohono O’odham) to learn about the spiritual connection local Native nations have to corn. Rochelle is helping introduce younger generations to corn through a variety of instagrammable baked goods and modern products. Rochelle shows Capri how to make her blue corn cookies. Rochelle uses traditional stirring sticks, moving the ingredients in a clockwise motion, simulating the cycle of life. 

Blue Corn Cookies

  • 1/2 cup unsalted cold butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sugar cane
  • 1/2 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp juniper ash 
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 ¼ cups blue cornmeal

Prep: Preheat the oven to 350°F and line baking sheets with parchment or a nonstick mat.

Mix Wet Ingredients: In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Mix in vanilla and egg.

Add Dry Ingredients: Stir in baking soda, juniper ash (if using), and salt. Gradually add flour and blue cornmeal until well combined.

Shape Cookies: Roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thickness or scoop and press on the prepared sheets.

Bake: Bake for 8-9 minutes until the edges start to brown. Cool on the sheet for 2 minutes before transferring to a rack. Serve with a hot cup of traditional dandelion tea.

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