Of tortillas and memories

My mom used to send me to the tortilla shop every afternoon just before dinner. I remember the same drill almost every day and the only thing different I remember was the amount of money she gave me. I remember buying 6 pounds of tortillas every time. At the tortilleria sometimes the line was long; sometimes it was an easy trip. Before you went, you would get a decorate piece of fabric called servilleta, to wrap them and keep them warm.

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Fig 1.- Classic Industrial tortilla machine

I have been around tortillas my whole life, I used to live in the city where tortillas are made by machines from huge balls of yellow corn dough but in the country tortillas are made by hand with an ancient technique in a very ethnical way Let me tell you about it.

There are many different kinds of tortillas, white, brown, black, blue and even red, not only in color but the size and taste too. But if you live in the city you can only buy yellow ones.

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Fig 2.- Maize varieties

Tortillas had been in Mesoamerica for centuries. They were the principal source of energy for ancient cultures. They are made form three basic ingredients: dry corn, water and food grade calcium hydroxide. My parents are form the country and because I spent almost every summer visiting family, I witnessed the ethnical way to prepare them. Tortillas are a part of life there; they are made by hand, one by one. A long process called nixtamalization was done every other day, this process incrases the bioavailability of protein and niacin from the corn.

Making tortillas is a very laborious task. The corn kernels are taken off the corncob only on the amount needed for the day. My grandmother used to do it in the afternoon. The process started choosing the kind of corn. It depended on the color available or the one she wanted to use. She took he huge bag of corn to the patio, extended a jute kind of fabric on the floor and started making the piles of grain rubbing 2 corncobs together.

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Fig 3.-Process to take the dry grain off of the corn cob.

She had a wooden box called cuartillo to measure the grain; every cuartillo is 2.5 kg of grain. After she got the necessary amount, she blew away the husk or debris tossing the grain side to side on the air. Then they were placed in a non-reactive pot and cooked until they were soft. The nixtamal have to stay on the pot for 8-12 hours until cold.

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Fig 4.- Wooden box used to measure dry corn. 2.5 kg capacity

Every small town has a mill, two or three maximum but they are not open all at once, every mill has a day that they work. I went with my grandma or my aunts a couple of times. The morning after the maize was cooked at around 4 to 5 am, we had to walk a couple of miles towards the closest mill. The line at the mill is usually pretty long, that’s why you have to go early. When it is your turn, you will dump your buckets of nixtamal on the mill and on your knees with your empty bucket, you need to pick the pieces falling from the mill by rolling them into a ball until your buckets are full. Fresh corn dough feels like fluffy play dough. As a courtesy, the first ball is for the prior costumer for any remaining nixtamal left. A small fee is charged for every bucket depending on the size.

Then the fun part begins. Over a wood fire a big hot griddle is placed besides, the rolling of the dough starts. There are many places where tortillas are rolled by hand and there are other places where a tortilla press is used. In my case a tortilla press was always used. The women making the tortillas, is in charge of rolling the dough, pressing the tortillas, cooked them on the hot griddle and cook them one by one until the ball of dough is gone. It was fun to watch this process, but the best part is the taste of the first tortilla out of the griddle because you have never taste a real tortilla if you haven’t tried the fresh made tortilla.

Fig 5.-Tortilla making final results.

In the house of a Mexican family from the country, tortillas are a very important part of the diet. The heart of the house is the little room was tortillas are made. All my summers during my childhood always started with the smell of wood fire and a fresh tortilla with salt.

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Fig 6.- Room in the house designated to cook. In houses where there is not a formal kitchen all food is cooked here. In some houses there are both. This room is especially used to make tortillas.
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