UCSB doctoral student explores nixtamalization and its impact on food production m
By TESS KENNY
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Hundreds of years from now, researchers may be looking at how you sautéed onions or boiled pasta and wonder what that said about our civilization. While food practices may not seem like the most obvious way to express yourself, what you eat and how you cook leaves a trace.
Today, one paleoethnobotanist is following that trace back in time. And it looks like she’s going in the right direction.
Emily Johnson, a doctoral student at UCSB, has developed a direct method to identify a key cooking process of indigenous communities in the archaeological record. While similar work has been done before, Ms. Johnson’s research is the first to specifically detect nixtamalization, a significant production process for maize and key indicator of societal progression.
“I am particularly interested in understanding the ways (food production) was negotiated as societies became increasingly hierarchical, and political and economically complex,” said Ms. Johnson in a news release. “Increased reliance on a few staple crops, such as maize, that often occurs with this shift can be detrimental unless adaptations are made to the diet.”
For societies that rely on just one or two crops, these adaptations can mean the difference between life and death. In ancient Mesoamerica, maize accounted for up to 80% of a typical diet. When that corn is consumed without being transformed in some kind of way, the likelihood of disease and malnutrition grows.
That’s where nixtamalization comes in.
For thousands of years, this production process has played a significant role in the foodways of indigenous communities throughout North America. Even today, nixtamalization is the first step of turning maize into masa for staples like tortillas or tamales.
Nixtamalization begins with cooking maize in a basic alkaline solution, which gives the corn increased nutritional value and more flavor, too. Microscopically, this process looks a lot different from others that have been tested before.
“Usually, starch grains have a blue tinge,” said Ms. Johnson. “They’ll look bloated if they’ve been boiled or like sludgy slimeballs if they’ve been gelatinized. But what I saw was something completely different.”
To find that difference, Ms. Johnson replicated the process. She quickly noticed the damage from cooking starch granules – the primary component of maize – were observable in significant ways.
“(The granules) expanded, but in a really uniform, spherical shape,” said Ms. Johnson. “They took on this really interesting rainbow refringence, which is different from the blue standard you see.”
Researchers can visibly detect these altered granules. With Ms. Johnson’s research, they have a new key for decoding the archaeological record.
“We don’t know where this process really started,” said Ms. Johnson. “We can kind of guess by using proxy evidence like the cooking materials or grinding stones, but it’s really important to understand what people utilized this process.”
Following nixtamalization through history means more than noting a civilization’s dish of the month. Knowing where and when people utilized this process can reveal patterns of growth, migration and culture.
“Is this happening in these smaller nucleated sites away from larger urban centers?” asked Ms. Johnson. “Or were people utilizing this process right before you see the shift into the larger growth of cities and major river areas? Where is the map?”
Those questions are what drew Ms. Johnson to her research from the start. As an undergraduate at Boston University, she quickly realized that food could be used to understand more than just diet. Now in her second quarter at UCSB, Ms. Johnson is beginning to get answers with the help of her advisor, Professor Amber VanDerwarker.
“I was really drawn to UCSB for the work Amber does,” said Ms. Johnson. “She studies in the same region of America that I do, integrating ideas of how complex society changes over time and how sustenance is impacted by that.”
For Ms. Johnson, the next step in continuing this line of research is moving out of the lab and into the field. She and Ms. VanDerwarker have already identified communities in the Southern Gulf lowlands in Mexico with existing evidence of maize-dominated diets.
“I’m trying to find an archaeological site where I can get residues from pottery I can actually test,” said Ms. Johnson. “That way I can see if the same kind of starch granules I saw in my experimental work shows up in my real life samples.”
While Ms. Johnson’s work is focused on the past, her discoveries may leave a lasting impact on current and future cooking methods. Still a major practice in Mexico and Central America, nixtamalization represents where other societies could be headed.
“Do we need to transform our own dietary practices?” asked Ms. Johnson. “This is in response to more personal nutritional stress of today. So people are exploring monocrop culture and what that means for our nutrition in the long run.”