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Tortillas of Here

Recently back from Mex­ico City and full of big city tastes. I was, as I always am in Mex­ico City, bowled over by all the tastes from each region com­ing together in the cacoph­o­nic way that only a city of that size and force has. I ate del­i­cate con­chas with their mag­i­cal scal­loped pat­tern. Tacos that were big­ger than any taco I have ever seen filled with per­fectly spiced rib-eye steak. Sweet pink tamales and rich atole that cut through the cold of the high-altitude morning.

There were so many choices. A mil­lion dif­fer­ent ways to fill myself up and yet as I sopped up my beans, scooped up the last few bites of my chi­laquiles, I found my tongue and some­thing deeper won­der­ing about the tor­tillas. They were dif­fer­ent, not quite right, I wasn’t sure how.

Here in Yucatan and espe­cially in the half of my life spent in the vil­lage where I work, I and every­one else eat a lot of tor­tillas. They come in big warm stacks neatly fit­ting into the rest of a meal. They make the spicy just right with their sweet­ness. They let your sop up the nutri­ents of those rich broths and sauces. They hold up meats, veg­eta­bles, and eggs. Here in Yucatan (and most of Mex­ico), it just doesn’t feel like food with­out tortillas.

Now that doesn’t mean all tor­tillas exist in an easy com­pa­ra­ble way to each other. Tor­tillas can big or small. Thick and hearty, or thin and light. They can be made by machines churned out quickly and effi­ciently in big stacks ready for fam­ily sun­day lunches. Or made one by one over the comal for each meal tucked into gourds by hands that feel for just the right moment. Some­times they are made from nix­ta­mal. Other times maseca. Each with it’s own taste and offering.

Tor­tillas are like secret win­dows into the meal. They are always round but vary greatly in their thick­ness, color, and body. In the pueblo, the tor­tillas I eat mostly are hand-made from nix­ta­mal. They are made each day through a proc­cess of soak­ing, cook­ing, milling, and form­ing the corn into neat cir­cles. They taste like here. Rich, sweet, earthy and slightly irreg­u­lar. They fill me up with the exper­tise, thought­ful­ness, a prac­ti­cal love that per­me­ates life, and a con­tra­dic­tory real­ity of this moment exist­ing in between the future and past of how and what food is.

But some­how in Mex­ico City, the tor­tillas tasted strange. Maybe it was that I ate in restau­rants where food is made for a gen­eral audi­ence rather spe­cific peo­ple. Or maybe  it’s the corn com­ing from all cor­ners of Mex­ico to be milled together in a slightly unsat­is­fy­ing com­bi­na­tion of dry and wet, yel­low, white, high-altitude, low-land, caballero, milpero anom­alies where no one is quite sure what the taste should be. I don’t know. But I do know that here, in Yucatan, in the hot, rocky soil, where it’s been a good year for corn the taste of these tor­tillas is known still.

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