Food for Thought: You’re Eating Fake Tortillas!…But, Why Don’t You Care?

homemade blue corn tortilla, mexican traditional food

Blue corn flour tortillas.

On May 7, 2014, Vice News published the piece, “You’re Eating Fake Tortillas, and Diana Kennedy Is Pissed About It.”  A world-renowned authority on Mexican cuisine, Diana Kennedy offers a familiar polemic–food today just isn’t as flavorful as it used to be. Ingredients are becoming more and more standardized everyday, and varieties of vegetables are becoming less and less. It’s the fast food, industrial world we live in. Countless varieties of fruits and vegetable become one or two available in your local grocery story, to the point at which “cows” become “cow,” “bananas” become “banana.”  

For Diana Kennedy, this is embodied in today’s tortilla, a blend of non-nixtamalized cornmeal and Maseca, which stands as a sad, flat comparison to the authentic tortillas she remembers from her past life in Mexico. She’s right–most tortillas we eat, especially those of us living in the United States, are not the tortillas of Diana Kennedy’s past. Maseca, like any other product found in chain grocery stores, is designed NOT to vary in flavor and texture. This is the principle at the heart of quality control, a standard of industrial food.

It was once “tortillas”–throughout Mexico, different heirloom corns were used to make masa, with different households using differing traditional proportions of ingredients, even sourcing different locations of limestone to make cal. Now, we have “the” tortilla, made from Maseca, and not always nixtamalized. (And hopefully, if you’ve learned anything from this blog, it’s that nixtamalization isn’t just a culinary technique that enhances nutrition, but also affects taste!)

Of course, flavor is on the rise. It’s probably one of the busiest, buzziest words of the past decade–we are once again obsessed with flavor, and with making sure our food has flavor. With the boom of heirloom vegetables and fruits, with the new rise in popularity for raising and rearing different varieties of cows and sheep and chickens, is Diana Kennedy just sounding a familiar horn? Is she just the latest to jump on a familiar public shaming, one many of us are desperately trying to correct each week when we adventurously try the new mystery vegetable included in our CSA pick-up?

Personally, I think Diana is on to something. Sure, we’re doing great with tomatoes and apples. Even potatoes are starting to get the heirloom treatment, with most grocery stores carrying red, russet, and Yukon golds, in addition to a number of fingerlings. Even bitter greens are on a rise like they haven’t been in decades, with several kinds of kale and mustard greens available at your fingertips. Yet, for all the heirloom fruits and vegetables filling the stalls of our favorite local vendors, heirloom corns are notoriously absent. You may find white, yellow, or blue corn meals, but you’ll rarely see “Tarahumara Cornmeal” or “Floriani Red Flint Hominy.” As the third most utilized food source for humans and first for ruminants, corn has become, simply, “corn.”

To boot, for all the “lost” culinary practices and recipes that are being revived, nixtamalization is only slowly being incorporated into both haute and more common cuisine. Corn and tortillas truly aren’t what they used to be, and few people seem to care.

DianaKennedyBookYou could easily argue that corn just hasn’t caught on the way other produce has, but that it’s time will soon come. Maybe, but I think it’s something else. Most heirloom tomatoes and apples are not so different from what I’m used to that I have a hard time calling them an apple or a tomato. Those that are making a comeback are typically those that still comfortably fit into my worldview of what those items should be–a tomato I can cut up and eat in a sandwich, or stew, or make a marinara from. An apple I can slice and eat with peanut butter or an apple I can bake or even make apple sauce with.

Heirloom corns, while they like like corn, do not “cook” like corn. Very few are varieties of sweet corn, meaning they can’t be eaten on the cob. You don’t stew most heirloom corns the way you do sweet corn–you let it dry, then when you’re ready, you soak it in an alkaline solution and eventually cook it until it looks and tastes more like a pot of beans than a pot of corn.

To revive heirloom corns, we have to revive heirloom culinary practices as well, and we also have to revive heirloom tastes. I think the latter is harder than any of the other points–I can change what I cook, even how I cook, but I’m going to have a much harder time changing what I think tastes good. That’s not because taste is universal (because it isn’t)–it’s because what we think tastes good is a product of what we have eaten all our lives.

It’s true–in the case of nature versus nurture, taste comes down on the side of nurture. That’s why you know your mother makes the best lasagna or chicken soup or (in my case) fried chicken in the world. (My mother also makes the best key lime pie and Brunswick stew, in case you were wondering!) And while our tastes do change throughout our lifetimes, both from new experiences and from biochemical changes, what we think tastes good is a preference that begins very early in our lives and is hard to change.

The emphasis is on hard to change. Not impossible. It may still be a while before we see heirloom corns filling the stands at our farmers markets, before we know how to cook a flint corn in our own home. Time, persistence, and patience. But I think we’ll get there…

one dish of hominy…

one authentic tortilla…

one nixtamalized pot of pozole at a time….

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