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.

Hunger in America

Last week, I participated in a family activity at my kid’s school. As I crossed the building, I came upon a sign in the front door of the cafeteria that read “get a free food box and free books, come in.” Who doesn’t like a free book, right? So we went in. All over the tables, there were a variety of children books all piled up. I took a look; most of them were for kids 4-6 years old. Since my kid is not in that age range anymore we struggled to find something she wanted. The lady at the front desk insisted that we should take a food box. They had way too many. So we did.

When we got home, we open that box. A couple dozen vegetable cans, a couple pasta bags and a box of very sugary cereal. We have a house pantry stocked, and I thought of myself that is something we always take for granted. Not everyone is so fortunate. What could I cook with this food? Certainly many dishes with the cans, but we could not prepare anything with just that, and more than half of them will go back to the food pantry because is either something we would not eat or has no nutritional value whatsoever.

I always thought of the United States as a place where food is plenteous. It was very shocking to contemplate the absurd reality, how many families in need live in my school district that we need boxes of food? I have been living in this country for more than 12 years, and I’d never heard other people talking about this issue. Maybe politics, pop culture or sports, but as a community we have missed the suffering of other people, the poor and the hungry.

I am shocked by the number of hungry children who live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where I never thought they had a problem with not having enough to eat. The hard reality of many families is heart-breaking: Kids living knowing how food stamps and local food pantry works. According to a 2015 report from USDA, 42.2 million people lived in food-insecure households in the United States. 6.4 million of them are kids and they live in households that struggle to afford food, on top of that, I found out that there are more who are unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children. Meanwhile, according to the Food Nutrition Services (FNS) in 2016, the number of people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been reduced because of the reintroduction of certain restrictions. The consequences has been the increase of illnesses derived from the of the low consumption of healthy food like diabetes and obesity.

As for us, how can we help decrease food insecurity in our neighborhoods? Certainly, I suggest that volunteering for small non-profits in programs that help provide nutritious food or food education for families, encouraging people to donate money not cans to food organizations, decreasing the demand for grains, encouraging people for policy change. We can help fight food insecurity, as individuals, as costumers, and as responsible citizens. We certainly can make a difference.