Mexican street corn, also known as elote, is a popular street food consisting of grilled or boiled corn on the cob that has been coated with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime juice. It’s a tasty and addictive snack that has become popular across North America. But when and where did this delicious dish first originate?
The Origins of Corn in Mexico
To understand the origins of Mexican street corn, we first need to look at the history of corn cultivation in Mexico. Corn was first domesticated from wild grass in southern Mexico around 9,000 years ago. The indigenous peoples of Mexico originally grew corn for subsistence, as it was a staple crop of their diet.
Archaeological evidence shows that indigenous groups like the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and others had already developed methods for cultivating corn as far back as 1500 BC. The crop was so important that it even held religious and spiritual significance in Aztec and Mayan culture. Corn was seen as a gift from the gods and honored during rituals and ceremonies.
So while corn originated in Mexico thousands of years ago, it’s unlikely that elote as we know it today existed back then. However, roasted and boiled corn kernels were an integral part of the Mexican diet for centuries before being sold as street food.
When Did Street Food Originate in Mexico?
Street food vendors began to appear in Mexican cities starting in the colonial period around the 1600s. During this time, indigenous communities migrated to urban areas and began selling food items in makeshift stalls and carts outside churches, plazas and markets. Some of the earliest street foods included tamales, roasted corn, tortillas, tacos, and other antojitos (“little cravings”).
Women were the primary street vendors during the colonial era, as they needed a source of income to support their families. They would wake early in the morning and sell items from baskets, wheelbarrows, or basic stands until the evening. Common street crys included “Tamales Oaxaqueños!” and “Elotes Calientes!”, advertising tamales from the Oaxaca region and hot roasted corn on the cob.
So while plain roasted corn was likely sold by these early street vendors, the more elaborate toppings that we associate with elote today had not yet developed. But the origins of Mexican street vending culture had emerged by this time period.
The Evolution of Elote
Elote as we now know it began developing in the years following the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. During this period, millions of people migrated from rural areas into cities seeking work and stability. With this rapid urbanization came an expansion of the street food industry.
Women continued to dominate street vending, now selling foods like quesadillas, tortas, and tostadas in addition to antojitos like roasted corn. The innovation of elote likely arose from these enterprising women experimenting with different toppings and preparations to attract customers.
When was mayonnaise first added?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when mayonnaise was first added to elote, but we know it was likely sometime around the 1930s or 1940s. Commercial mayonnaise became more widely available in Mexico at this time. Adding a creamy, tangy mayo coating would have been an inventive way to elevate the dish from just boiled corn.
When did cotija cheese become a key ingredient?
The crumbled Cotija cheese that gives elote its signature salty flavor wasn’t always a standard ingredient. Cotija cheese originated in the town of Cotija, Michoacán, which was also an important center for dairy production. The cheese became more commonly available across Mexico in the mid-20th century. Vendors then started sprinkling the salty Cotija crumbles onto their mayo-coated corn for an extra layer of flavor.
When was chili powder added to the mix?
While chili peppers were used in Mexican cooking for centuries, commercial chili powders weren’t invented until the 20th century. Dried chilies would need to be ground into powder before they could conveniently be shaken onto street food like elote. The first commercial chili powders appeared in the 1920s in Texas border towns like San Antonio. Their popularity then spread through the rest of Texas and Mexico. Chili powder would have been a convenient way for street vendors to add a kick of heat and spice to their corn.
The Addition of Lime Juice
A squeeze of fresh lime juice adds acidity and cuts through the richness of mayonnaise, cheese, and chili powder. There are some accounts of lime wedges being sold alongside elote by street vendors as early as the 1950s. Customers could then squeeze on the tart lime juice to balance the flavors. Eventually, adding lime juice directly to the cooked corn became standard practice for eloteros.
When Was Elote First Mentioned in Recipes?
References to elote in Mexican cookbooks can help us trace its evolution as a distinct street food dish. Some early recipe book mentions include:
- In 1939, a encyclopedic cookbook called Diccionario de Cocina contained a basic recipe for roasted corn (elotes asados) coated in butter and fried with cheese. This is evidence that simplest form of the dish existed by the 1930s.
- In 1945, a recipe for “Elotes a la Mexicana” appeared in Enciclopedia Culinaria: la Cocina Completa. The corn was described as being served hot with butter, cheese, and chile powder.
- In 1956, Josefina Velázquez de León published a popular cookbook Cocina Económica which contained a recipe for elotes dressed with seasoned mayonnaise, parsley, cheese and chile.
- By the 1960s and 70s, recipes for Mexican street corn with all its canonical ingredients became common in cookbooks by authors like Yolanda Saldana and Alicia Gironella.
So while simpler roasted corn has existed for centuries, recipes confirm that elote as we now recognize it developed somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s, reaching the height of popularity by the 1960s.
When Did Elote Transition to a Popular US Street Food?
Elote grew in popularity in Mexico through the mid 20th century, becoming a snack that most Mexicans fondly remember from their childhood. Its transition into mainstream American culture began within the past few decades.
In the 1980s and 90s, waves of Mexican immigrants brought their food traditions including elote to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Vendors pushing carts began selling Mexican street foods to new immigrant communities hungry for a taste of home.
Elote was also introduced to non-Mexican Americans at this time through Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine. Recipes for Mexican street corn began appearing in mainstream cookbooks and food magazines by the 1990s, introducing it to home cooks as a fun and easy side dish.
By the 2000s, elote’s exposure grew through media and pop culture. In 2006, widely-read New York Times food writer Mark Bittman published an elote recipe calling it “Mexican-style grilled corn.” Food Network stars like Bobby Flay also featured elote in cooking shows.
Around this time, non-Latino entrepreneurs also started their own Mexican street corn carts and restaurants. L.A.’s Elote Cafe which opened in 2009 is credited with bringing elote to foodie mainstream.
Today, elote is beloved coast to coast in both its authentic street food form and as a trendy new side dish. While its origins are centuries old, its widespread fame is relatively recent.
In summary, corn originated in Mexico over 9,000 years ago, and was a dietary staple for indigenous cultures like the Aztecs. Street food culture emerged in the colonial era around the 1600s, with roasted and boiled corn sold as antojitos.
Elote as we recognize it today developed in the early 20th century, with mayonnaise, Cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime juice added to roasted corn by innovative street vendors. By the 1960s, recipes for Mexican street corn appeared in cookbooks with its essential ingredients and preparation.
It transitioned from a beloved Mexican street snack to a mainstream American comfort food within the past few decades. While elote’s basic ingredients are centuries-old, the dish only achieved widespread international fame within the past 50 years or so. So while ancient in its roots, elote as we love it today is a relatively recent invention.