“Please Pass the Tortillas”
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN MEXICO
THINK of an invention that serves as “a wrapping, a spoon, a plate, and a food, all at the same time, and that goes well with practically any other food.” Thus did nutritionist Héctor Bourges describe an invention that has been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. Many people still eat it every day. It is the tortilla, the flat disk of corn that is a basic element of the Mexican diet.*
Ancient writings show how important corn was to the ancient Mesoamerican people. This cereal, domesticated thousands of years ago in what is known today as Mexico, helped make possible the development of such great cultures as the Olmec, the Maya, the Teotihuacán, and the Mexica.
From Corn to Tortilla
The basic procedure for making tortillas is to mix one part mature corn kernels with two parts water in which approximately 1 percent lime is dissolved. The mixture is heated until the thin skin of the kernels can be broken loose between one’s fingers. Cold water is added to stop the heating process, and the mixture is allowed to settle overnight.
The following day the soft kernels, now called nixtamal, are lifted by hand out of the receptacle and put into a new one, where the remaining liquid is drained off. The nixtamal is ground, and salt and water are added until the mixture becomes a soft dough called masa. Traditionally, the masa is divided into small balls that are shaped by hand into thin, flat disks and then placed on a hot, flat earthenware griddle. They are turned once and then a second time. A thin layer on top of the tortilla puffs up, and it is ready!
The first step of this process, in which lime is added, has proved helpful in preventing certain health problems. How is that? The lack of a vitamin called niacin causes pellagra, a disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and possibly death. This sickness is common among people who live on corn and little or no protein-rich foods.
The problem is that the niacin in corn cannot be assimilated by the body. Lime, on the other hand, makes the niacin more available to the body. The tortilla may therefore be one reason why pellagra is not a common disease in the poor zones of Mexico, except in some areas where it is the custom to rinse the nixtamal to whiten the masa, which washes the niacin away.
Another important result of the addition of lime is that it increases the calcium content, a necessary nutrient for bones and nerves, among other things. By the way, because whole-grain corn is used, tortillas are also a very good source of fiber.
All things considered, wouldn’t you too call tortillas a great invention? Now, as with any other invention, we have to observe how the experts use it in order to enjoy it the most.
In the 16th century, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún related the way tortillas were served: ‘The tortillas were white, hot, and folded. They were arranged in a basket and covered with a white cloth.’
After centuries, things have changed very little. Tortillas are still served hot, usually in a basket, and covered with a clean cloth. Also, as in olden times, there are many kinds of tortillas: white, yellow, blue, and reddish. They are made in different sizes as well. And, of course, most Mexicans have tortillas every day with the noon meal and very possibly for breakfast and supper also.
One basketful of tortillas is placed on the table for the entire family. Every diner is interested in keeping the tortillas hot until the end of the meal. Therefore, each person who uncovers the tortillas takes only one and then rearranges the cloth to cover the rest of them. As the meal progresses and diners want more tortillas, no matter what the topic of conversation is, the phrase “please pass the tortillas” will be heard again and again.
At this point you may be wondering, ‘Do Mexican housewives make tortillas by hand every day?’ Most do not. Since 1884, machines have been invented to automate the procedure. Manual tortilla presses are still used by many housewives, especially in rural areas. But most Mexicans buy tortillas from a tortilla shop, where a machine can produce between 3,000 and 10,000 of them an hour.
It is often the children’s responsibility to buy the tortillas right before a meal. So the smell, sound, and heat of the tortilla machine live in the childhood memories of most Mexicans. This is true even of poor families, since the price of the tortilla is very low. It is indeed, as Dr. Bourges, quoted earlier, says, “a real bargain, which we inherited from our ancestors.”
So if you try the tortilla, you will be trying a bit of the history of a people. Remember: As many times as you wish, you may feel free to say, “Please pass the tortillas.”
Although wheat-flour tortillas are also consumed in some areas of Mexico, their impact on the Mexican culture is limited.
[Pictures on page 22]
Tortillas made by hand