Nixtamalisation

Image result for fulacht fiadh

The process of nixtamalization is one of my favourite cooking stories from history.  It is a sophisticated process involving empirical chemistry to convert maize from useless bulk into a nutritional food.

The nixtamalization process was vital to the early Mesoamerican diet.  Unprocessed maize is deficient in vitamin B3; niacin. A population that depends on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra, niacin deficiency, or kwashiorkor, the absence of certain amino acids that maize is deficient in.

To unlock the niacin you must cook the maize in a solution containing lime, and ideally calcium.   This can be done by adding lye (wood fire ash) to the kernels during boiling or by the addition of lime as a slaked rock.

Nextamalli is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the processed grain – also called Hominy which comes from the Algonquin word uskatahomen.

The spread of maize cultivation in the Americas was accompanied by the adoption of the nixtamalization process.

How this process developed may be understood by looking at cooking in Ancient Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish did not need the process.  If you look at the cooking arrangement in the photo above you will see what is called a Fulacht Fiadh.  In bronze age Ireland people did not have good cooking pots.  If you are really careful it is possible to boil a stew in a bark container or an anmial skin, but it’s not easy.

The Irish used a cooking pit.  The pit was lined with timber to prevent the sides from collapsing into a muddy hole.  It was filled with water.  Then a fire was built in the hearth and limestone rocks were placed on the fire.  When they heated up the “cooks” used large wooden paddles to lift  or roll the hot rocks and place them in the pit, which caused the water to boil and the meal to cook.

Using the same process in South America the locals found that the combination of slaked lime stone, and the wood ash from the fire had a magical effect on the maize.  It converted maize from a vegetable into a staple food that gave almost everything you needed to live.  Add a few beans, potato, tomato, chile and you have a feast.

When Europeans discovered maize in the new world, and saw how it formed a staple food, they brought it home and used it as a food in their colonies, especially in Africa and India.  But they didn’t know about nixtamalization and famine soon followed.  To this day pellagra remains a problem in some parts of the world where the grain spread without the process.  South Africa, Egypt and Southern India still see problems.

The British attempted to feed the Irish with maize during the potato famine.  Robert Peel imported Indian Corn from America and had it distributed at cost price.  Most people could not afford it and those that could were appalled by the garish yellow rock hard grain that was unfit to make bread.  They labelled it “Peel’s Brimstone” and many thought it was a plot to poison them.  They had no idea how to cook the food.  Those who persisted and boiled it down to a tasteless porridge were not feeding themselves in any case, because they had no niacin.

 

When Health & Safety goes mad!

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My eldest son was describing his school science class to me.  He told me how frustrated his science teacher is, because Health & Safety guidelines have resulted in the removal of many substances from the school.  Teachers cannot demonstrate many of the bread and butter experiments any more because they are too dangerous.  Bunsen Burners are being removed and replaced with hot plates.  Sodium and Potassium have been taken off the experiments list – way too dangerous.  And forget phosphorous.

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For many years in Ireland the study of science was in decline.  The government of Ireland made science education a priority.  We want kids to study science.  We want them to experiment and to have fun and to get excited about the subject. At the same time the Health & Safety gremlins want to make sure that our kids are not boiled in acid, blinded by explosions, scorched by naked gas flames, gassed by toxic fumes or knocked out with chloroform. The problem here is that the H&S gremlins always win the argument.  There is no reasoned debate.  If you ask “how many kids were actually harmed in school experiments in the last 12 months” they will not answer.  They work on the basis of risk assessment, not risk fact, or risk history, or reported incidents. This is a problem for the teaching of science in schools,and in universities.

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Science involves pushing the boundaries of what is now possible.  Science is about doing risky things.  If we let H&S take over the world then we can say bye bye to any new breakthrough discoveries. The minute I start to talk like this the H&S gremlins roll out their big guns.

Insurance.  If you don’t listen to the gremlins, they warn that the Insurance costs will skyrocket.  Even worse, they warn, we will be open to claims of liability.

The very fact that H&S have raised a risk means that we automatically become liable to that risk in a way we never were before. Just imagine, little Johnny is in class carrying out a titration experiment.  The teacher warns the class not to boil the alcohol.  Johnny thinks this is funny and turns up the heat.  The alcohol boils and ignites.  There is a relatively harmless flash which removes Johnnies eyebrows, much to the amusement of the class.

Mommy is not laughing.  He was scheduled for a set of head-shots for a modelling job. She sues the school.  Her bottom feeding pond sucking scum lawyer knows exactly what to look for.  He unearths the minutes of a school meeting where the Health and Safety officer expressed concern that bunsen burners in the hands of children were a danger.  The school did not remove them.  QED, the school is at fault.  Case closed.  Now, if H&S had never reported the risk, the liability of the school would have been lessened.

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My own take on all this is simple.  I want my kids to learn science properly.  I want them to engage in experimentation.  I am prepared to sign a liability waiver as a condition of my child taking part in potentially dangerous experiments.  If little Johnnies Mommy is not prepared to sign the waiver I am quite happy to see little Johnny study something less dangerous instead.

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Art?  No, chisels are too dangerous. Technical drawing?  No, compasses are pointy. Music?  No, drumsticks, violin bows, breaking strings, risk of deafness from Cymbal crashing. Home economics?  Sewing needles, knives, scissors, hot cooking plates, no way. Religion.  That should be OK.  Nobody dies because of religion.  Do they? Problem is, how is Mommy going to protect little Johnny from himself, and from getting his heart broken by a girl, and from his personal failures, and his nasty boss, and from the random vagaries of the world?

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Chemistry Experiment; by Bart Edelman

We listened intently to the professor,

Followed each one of her instructions,

Read through the textbook twice,

Wore lab coats and safety goggles,

Mixed the perfect chemical combinations

In the proper amount and order.

We thought we were a complete success.

And then the flash of light,

The loud, perplexing explosion,

The black rope of smoke,

Rising freely above our singed hair.

Someone in another lab down the hallway

Phoned the local fire department

Which arrived lickety-split

With the hazardous waste crew,

And they assessed the accident,

Deciding we were out of danger.

It was the talk of the campus,

For many weeks afterwords.

We, However, became so disillusioned

That we immediately dropped the course

And slowly retreated from each other.

The very idea we could have done

More damage than we actually did–

Blown ourselves up and the building

From the base of its foundation–

Shook us, like nothing had before.

And even now, years later,

When anyone still asks about you,

I get this sick feeling in my stomach

And wonder what really happened

To all the elementary matter.