That corn is so endangered is news to many Mexicans, many of whom don’t have a deep understanding of the seismic supply shift that has occurred behind their backs as it happened only within the last generation. Mier didn’t realize it either. As we travel to his first presentation of the day, I ask how he got involved with corn activism. He lights up and explains that his journey started at least five years ago, when he began tending to his own land in Mexico state. He thought to plant popcorn, an ancient variety known as palomero toluqueño, when he realized nobody had any seeds he could use.
“Town by town, I looked for these seeds, studying where they might be located. I started driving to many states in Mexico trying to find them, but there were none. It was so disappointing. One by one, I had people telling me that their grandparents planted them, but not anymore, and they lost the seeds awhile ago,” Mier laments. “ I visited a very old lady who recalled planting them herself, but there was a big frost many years ago that caused her to lose all her seeds. After that, she started buying tortillas.”
“Around the same time, I also decided I wanted to plant blue corn, which is common to the state of Mexico. No farmers near me had any seeds saved,” he continues. “That was one of the reasons I started the foundation: I never realized corn was actually endangered. It was shocking to find out that ancient popcorn, one of the most common varieties, was about to become extinct and it was frustrating to not be able to buy seeds from a catalog. How could this happen to corn in Mexico? We’ve been planting corn for, it’s thought, 11,000 years. The government should be able to promote and help farmers everywhere in the country, because there’s nothing new about corn. We know everything already. It should be organized better. I had this feeling that we needed to start something.”
Though Mier spent much of his adult life working in a family furniture business, most recently as its Chief Financial Officer, he says he always felt a pull between his “two sides,” so he has been running Organización de Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana for the last two years as a side project, which he recently decided will become his full-time job.
After his presentation at Tijuana’s Culinary Arts School, which is credited with creating the lauded Baja California cooking culture that made the state’s chefs a target for Mier’s efforts, we landed at Rancho La Puerta. “The Ranch,” as enthusiasts call it, is a tony spa retreat in the town of Tecate that sits directly on the border fence with the United States and San Diego County. With a vegetarian food program, a cooking school and a resort owner who just happened to be obsessed with heirloom corn, he had his most captive audience yet.
As he passed around the ears—some with white and pink speckled dots, others with pearlized black kernels—everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed at the possibilities. It’s hard not to wonder what that corn would taste like, say, in tortilla form, doused in salsa and stuffed with meat and cheese. That is precisely Mier’s goal.
Mayan legend attributes the creation of man to corn
His message generally strikes a chord. In Mexico, it is said that, “sin maíz no hay país”: without corn there is no country. Mayan legend attributes the creation of man to corn. But people don’t have an easy way of getting good corn products. They may not have the time, interest or ability to start farming. Their local tortilleria, Mier says, doesn’t have to disclose what is in its tortillas and likely isn’t using nixtamalized corn. Store bought tortillas are the default for most, offering little in terms of choice of quality.
Still, Mier says he can see the spark in their eyes when he asks them to recall family memories, whether about corn or specific dishes that may have been lost over time. “In Ensenada, someone said she remembered her grandma grew heirloom corn in their backyard. In an indigenous village in Mexico state, I was talking to a woman about pinole [a mixture of ground, roasted corn with various spices] during a discussion about traditional dishes. Then, she realized, she never made it for her children despite eating it all the time herself. She was shocked! She never thought about it. So, that day, we made the first pinole for her children, who were 18 and 20—not children anymore. I couldn’t believe they’d never had it,” he remembers.
Denise Roa, the chef at Rancho La Puerta, commented that she didn’t know anywhere she could buy fresh masa, so she relied on store-bought tortillas. This is an echo Mier hears from chefs throughout the country, even at Mexico City’s finest restaurants, he says. It’s a particular crime considering how Mexican food—especially the high-end kind—has swept the globe in recent years. One chef, in particular, has paid attention to Mier’s efforts. Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen heard about his work and tapped him to give a presentation to him and his staff during his pop-up in Tulum in late spring 2017. Mier says that the kitchen staff he meets hardly ever know how to make fresh tortillas, much less about different heirloom corn varieties. Ever the optimist, it never fails to amaze him.
Cutting corn tamales in Rosarito, Mexico. Photo by Jackie Bryant
Mier doesn’t have any ready-made solutions on hand. His goal is to let people know that their heritage is in danger, and he expects that, from there, people will begin to change their habits. He would love to see seed catalogs, like there are in the United States, and dreams of starting one. He wants to connect small farmers and chefs in the hope of creating a supply chain based on seasonality and suitability. As of August 2017, the Mexican government approved Mier’s foundation status, which means Organización de Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana will be able to receive donations and grants. And he was eventually able to find the popcorn seed he needed from a farmer in Mexico state—after planting, it’ll be part of his 2017 personal harvest as well as the first harvest of this variety in 60 years, Mier believes. He is also encouraged by a particular recent victory for agricultural activists: a 2013 lawsuit filed against Monsanto was recently upheld in Mexican court this past January. It bans the company, for now, from planting GMO corn, though such corn enters the food system anyway due to American imports.
While driving, we passed a building with “100% elote” painted on its wall, so we stopped. As Mier sampled the owner’s tamales, he chatted with her about how she makes them and went back for seconds. He was satisfied that she used only corn, though he knew it was either the standardized white corn or imported American corn. I got the sense that half of his excitement was due to the fact that he knew something she didn’t: that as good as her tamales were, one day he’d blow everyone’s mind with the fact they could be even better. But for now, Rafael Mier remains Mexico’s premier corn evangelist, going from door to door with his two suitcases, reminding Mexicans of their birthright one ear of corn at a time.