Masienda in the house: Bringing landrace corn to NYC (and beyond)

In late 2014 Mexican celebrity chef Enrique Olvera opened his first international restaurant, Cosme. He chose New York City as the location for it, in a cavernous building halfway between Broadway and Park Avenue on East 21st Street. One of the chief concerns for Olvera in carrying out his Mexican take-over of Manhattan was the ability to recreate authentic Mexican flavours north of the border. Simply put, the style of food that Olvera believes in and produces (and which put him on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants) is all about using local, Mexican ingredients. “Cocina mexicana con productos locales” as they say at his Mexico City restaurant, Pujol.

You can get most things in New York City, but not restaurant quantities of traditional corn (or ‘maize) back when Olvera was first looking for them. Maize, not wheat, forms the foundation of Mexican cuisine and is used to make everything from tortillas, tamales and atole to the now famous husk meringue and corn mousse that Olvera serves at Cosme for dessert. To open his restaurant Olvera needed a reliable supply of landrace corn, and that’s where things get complicated.

‘Landrace corn’ is a vague, umbrella term for the 59-odd types of maize native to Mexico; the locally-adapted, open-pollinated breeds that are farmed, and consumed, by traditional landholders all over the country. This is no ubiquitous, golden yellow sweet corn we’re talking about, but a rich population of maize varieties which showcase mind-blowing diversity.

Basically you can paint a rainbow from landrace corn in Mexico, and the kernel shapes, textures and tastes all differ wildly too.

A selection of landrace corn varieties sourced by Masienda. Image courtesy of Masienda.
Masienda partner grower, Catarino, and his family in Oaxaca. Image courtesy of Masienda.

How then do you source and truck tonnes of the stuff from Mexico to New York City? Well, that’s when you call Jorge Gaviria in. Jorge is a Miami-native, formerly based in NYC but now living in San Francisco. He made his first visit to Mexico in February 2014 – it was a game-changer – and these days he’s there at least once every five weeks. And while I haven’t met Jorge in person, I have eaten canine tooth-sized corn kernels (served with octopus) and tortillas made from the maize he supplies at Olvera’s restaurant in the Flatiron District. People: we have a bona fide plant hunter in our midst.

I can feel the other end of the Internet double over when I tell Jorge he’s a plant hunter. On his business card it says ‘Founder and CEO, Masienda’ but let’s put that to one side for the minute. As a vocation Jorge sources, imports and purveys landrace corn and companion products from smallholder farmers in Mexico to NYC, LA, Miami, Toronto and Copenhagen. Landrace corn. Take note, because we have arrived at a point in the history of the world when the politics of corn, and more generally agricultural biodiversity, has become a billion-dollar tug of war between governments, transnational corporations, small farmers and the community.

This type of plant hunting is no small time stuff. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and does so with an ethical purpose – one the great proportion of early plant hunters had no claim on.

Jorge works with a network of advisors and people on the ground to source five or so varieties of landrace corn, principally from the state of Oaxaca to the south and, to a lesser extent, from within the state of Mexico, which geographically bear hugs the city-state capital. The varieties may change, year to year, but Jorge consistently keeps bolita (small, ball-shaped kernels in white, yellow, blue or purple), elotes conicos (elongated, teardrop kernels in red or blue), olotillo (robust, yellow), tuxpeño (white, orange and yellow dented kernels) and chalqueño (white and yellow ovals) on the books.

'The land chooses the seed,' farmers in Oaxaca have said. This perfectly describes what landrace corn is. Image courtesy of Masienda.
On the land in Oaxaca. Image courtesy of Masienda.

‘Simply put, our main goal is to provide Mexican farmers with an opportunity to economically support themselves and their agricultural and culinary traditions in Mexico,’ Jorge tells me, without emotion or fanfare. ‘If we can do that, and do that well, we hope to give farmers a choice between advancing their traditions locally in Mexico and seeking alternative sources of income in the United States. Both scenarios weigh heavily upon family structures, natural biodiversity and tradition, as we know.’

Corn is sacred in Mexico. Whether you approach the issue esoterically or pragmatically, maize is deeply part of Mexican culture: it’s the daily bread, a source of nourishment and inseparable from the sense of Mexican identity. Maize originates from Mexico. In Mayan belief man is created from maize. According to Aztec belief, the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl gave mankind maize, which represented both a source of sustenance and intelligence.

In more recent years, interventions including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), agribusiness and the homogenization of everything (the genetics of maize included) has cut deep courses through the livelihoods and wellbeing of families in Mexico whose traditions are based in and around farming. Genetically modified corn crops are for the moment legally banned in Mexico, but heavily subsidized, genetically modified corn from the US floods across the border, accounting for roughly one third of the local market and impacting on the prices of locally grown maize. Agribusiness has taken on whole swathes of land in northern Mexico and litigates for the introduction of GMO corn crops in the country. This push and pull is complex, corporate and profit-driven.

Jorge choses to work positively amidst the politics. His model of business pivots on respect: respect for food, diversity, family, farming practice and profit share. ‘Through Masienda we’re appealing to the pleasure of eating as a means to change the world!’ he says. ‘There’s so much to draw from in this work, really. The impact is palpable at both ends of the chain – from the farmers with whom we work to the diners who are experiencing what excellent corn really tastes like.’

Masienda is reclaiming an ingredient that we, by and large, take for granted.’

‘We want to offer the choice for regional economic stability in historically poor areas of Mexico, and create conditions that engender food sovereignty. This is an inherently political act, to be sure, as the prevailing political conditions today run counter to this model of doing business. Mexico, the birthplace of corn, shouldn’t have to import a third of its corn from the US, if there is a viable alternative – and there is. It’s ironic and inspiring to think that smallholder farmers are now able to benefit from NAFTA, for example, which has so long been associated and even linked to the massive exodus of this population and marginalization of the natural landscape.’

You know the best part? The red, orange, yellow, blue and purple corn kernels being trucked across the border are – like an elusive promise of the future – supporting farming families as well as creating a sublime, culinary hit. In the US they’re being used to make everything from tortillas, grits, polenta, beer and the main courses served at Cosme, a restaurant which has captured the attention of the world and celebrates local Mexican ingredients. ‘The land chooses the seed,’ farmers in Oaxaca have said, and that is the secret to corn, stripped of all its complexity.

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All images courtesy of Masienda.

Jorge Gaviria, Founder and CEO of Masienda. But what that really means is 'bona fide plant hunter'. Image courtesy of Masienda.
'I'm passionate about intentional eating and food sovereignty,' says Jorge Gaviria. Image courtesy of Masienda.