In Praise of Flour Tortillas, an Unsung Jewel of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

In Praise of Flour Tortillas, an Unsung Jewel of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

Last fall, I gave a talk on the history of tacos at Texas State
University, in San Marcos, a city about thirty minutes south of Austin.
A professor sent me off afterward with a gift bag, which contained the
usual school-logoed T-shirts, pens, and coffee mugs, but also something
better: three bags of flour tortillas. They were unlike any I had ever
seen: each one thick as a magazine, and whiter than Wonder Bread. They
were made by La Paloma White Wings, of San Antonio, a brand ubiquitous
in Texas and nowhere else. On my flight back home to Southern
California, I opened a pack and rolled one up. Many Mexicans consider
eating tortillas cold a waste, like using Veuve Clicquot for mouthwash.
You need to warm them to unlock their flavor, their elasticity. But I couldn’t help myself. I ate three, each one buttery and chewy.
When I got home, I made a sublime quesadilla, then posted a photo of the
La Paloma packs on Instagram. In response, I received hundreds of likes,
along with requests on where to find them (the company ships). But then
a friend from Houston who grew up in Mexico chimed in: “Fat thick torts
are puro Tex-Mex,” he wrote. “Gross.”

Few foods are more contentious among Mexicans than the flour tortilla.
People rhapsodize about the earthiness of a corn one hecho a mano (freshly handmade); high-end Mexican restaurants in the United States
boast on social media about their use of heritage maize to create
organic, non-G.M.O. versions. The corn tortilla is an easy symbol of
pride, an elemental food that connects Mexicans to our indigenous past
and ancestral homeland. Those made de harina, by contrast, are bastard
children of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a hybrid of the corn flatbread
that has existed in Mexico for thousands of years and the wheat that the
Spanish conquistadors brought over. Recent Mexican immigrants deride
them as a gringo quirk. (My own mother had never even tasted flour
tortillas until she arrived in Southern California from central Mexico,
during the late nineteen-sixties.) Foodie purists dismiss them as not
“real” Mexican food. The authors of the excellent cookbook “Decolonize Your Diet” offer recipes for tortillas made with the flour of amaranth
and mesquite but reject the bleached-wheat version used in most flour
tortillas as “a product of colonization.” They’re even losing ground in
the American mainstream. In 1993, the Tortilla Industry Association
(TIA) estimated that flour tortillas captured sixty per cent of the U.S.
market, while corn got forty per cent. By 2015, according to TIA, corn
was only a smidge behind, accounting for $5.8 billion, compared to
flour’s $5.9 billion.

I suspect that flour tortillas get so little respect, in part, because
the standard version that most people know Stateside, the ones wrapped
around Chipotle burritos, folded to make Taco Bell quesadillas, or
pinched into breakfast tacos at the latest hipster hot spot, are so
bland. The most popular brands—Mission and Calidad, subsidiaries of
Gruma, the largest tortilla company in the world—too often stick on
comales and turn into clammy muck once they enter your mouth. They
taste like the industrial-scale process from which they come: metallic,
rushed, with no soul. If you live or travel in the borderlands, though,
you quickly learn that great flour tortillas do exist, and can be
revelatory. Like good corn tortillas in Mexico, Southwestern flour
tortillas vary from state to state. They are products of the
long-standing Mexican-American communities who have proudly made and
eaten them despite scorn from all sides. They are, in that sense, the
Mexicans of Mexican food.

Texas tortillas, which are often made with baking powder, get flaky and
tend to puff up like Indian roti bread when made fresh. Those in New
Mexico and southern Colorado taste wheatier; some food historians think that
they’re a remnant of the crypto-Jews and Muslims who settled the area
in the seventeenth century. Until recently, Southern California’s
contribution was mostly chalky and forgettable; at home, my mom used
Guerrero flour tortillas (Gruma’s brand for the Latino market) only for the
lunch burritos I’d take to school. The trend for
young, middle-class Mexican-Americans in Southern California today is to seek artisan flour tortillas de agua, prepped in the airy, translucent style of the Mexican state
of Sonora, with only flour, water, and salt.

The American capital of flour tortillas, though, is Arizona, where they are
prepared in a manner virtually identical to that of the ones across the
border in Sonora. In Arizona, you can find versions as small as a palm
or wider than a basketball hoop. No matter the size, they’re
surprisingly sturdy and versatile in ways that their U.S. peers aren’t.
Fold one up, and you get what Arizonans call a burro and the rest of the
world calls a burrito; dunk a burro in the fryer, and it becomes a
chimichanga. Bake the bigger tortillas with cheese and meat, and they
transform into what’s known as a cheese crisp.

These are the native tortillas of Steven Alvarez, a professor of English
at St. John’s University in Queens, who’s teaching a senior seminar this
semester titled “Taco Literacy: Writing Transnational Mexican Foodways.”
Alvarez, who hails from the Arizona mining town of Safford, remembers
his mom making fresh flour tortillas every weekend. He’d help to mold
the dough into little balls that she would then roll out before placingthem on the comal. For him, flour tortillas are about his own family
memory, and nostalgia. But they are also no less a part of Mexican
culinary heritage than chiles or maize. “There has been a resurgence in
the turn toward the indigenous, pre-Columbian roots of Mexican food,”
Alvarez told me. “But, no doubt, what we understand as Mexican food
today would not be the same without pork, chicken, beef, cheese, and
flour—all introduced by the Europeans.”

Every time Alvarez visits home, he returns to New York with at least
seven dozen-count packs of flour tortillas from Mi Casa Tortilla
Factory, which serves Safford and the towns in the surrounding Gila
Valley. “I freeze them,” he said. “But they never seem to last long


via Everything

January 13, 2018 at 10:10AM

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