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Tortillas: Border Staff of Life
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Marisa Gomez
Centuries ago, Mexican Indians patted corn dough into thin unleavened cakes. When toasted on a hot griddle, they became tortillas, the common bread of Mexico.
The corn tortilla was once the sacred food of the indigenous people of Mexico. It slowly migrated into the U. S. by way of the Mexican-American border and has since become a staple in the Hispanic/Anglo diet.
Drawing by Myriam Garcia
Before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs called their tortillas tlaxcalli, meaning bread. After the arrival of Cortez, the flat corn bread of the Aztecs had acquired a Spanish name, tortilla. Originally, the word "tortilla" meant omelet or a combination of eggs and potatoes.
The Spanish brought wheat to the New World. The Spanish and these natives people slowly started to interchange ideas and began making tortillas with wheat as well as corn.
Tortillas made from ground wheat have light-brown flecks and are pliable, making them easy to fold around various fillings. Flour tortillas are eaten only in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, although with frozen foods and Mexican restaurant franchises, the flour tortilla has made genuine inroads into other U.S. markets.
Enriqueta Gomez, a homemaker living in El Paso for thirty-two years, is one of the few Mexican women who still make flour tortillas from scratch. As a young girl in Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua, she remembers harvesting wheat to send to the mill in Casas Grandes. Her job was to thresh the wheat and prepare it for the mill. After the wheat was made into flour, Mrs. Gomez made masa for tortillas.
"Every young girl knew how to make tortillas, but and back then no one thought of machines that made tortillas," recalls Mrs. Gomez.
The masa for flour tortillas consists of wheat flour, lard, baking power, salt and water. According to Mrs. Gomez, if lard is not used the tortillas will be brittle. Likewise, if baking powder is eliminated, the tortilla will chewy. Mrs. Gomez cautions cooks not to use hot water when preparing flour tortillas because the dough will become soggy. Cold water should always be used.
There are varying techniques of rolling out tortillas. Most often a rolling pin is used--often only one hand is employed to roll them out. An expert can turn a ball of tortilla dough into an 8-inch circle in about five strokes. Some people in Mrs. Gomez's hometown use soda bottles instead of rolling pins to make their tortillas.
Mrs. Gomez says, "Store-bought flour tortillas are bland and sweet. They are not useful in making burritos." Many Mexican women who used to make tortillas from scratch, however, are switching to store-bought tortillas because of the convenience.
Today many food stores in the Southwest area stock their shelves with corn and flour tortillas. Many of these stores even have a tortilleria right in the store. Homemade tortillas are becoming increasingly rare as machines are being used more and more instead of people.
Whether homemade or store-bought, tortillas have a wide variety of uses. While fresh and pliable, tortillas are eaten as bread. They are often used as spoons to scoop up various Mexican dishes.
The corn tortilla is used in numerous Mexican delicacies: tacos, enchiladas, flautas, tostadas, nachos and more. When dried, the corn tortilla can be cut into pieces and tossed into a sauce to become chilaquiles. It also might be used like a pasta in a casserole to form layers between meat, vegetables, cheese and cream to produce sopa seca (dried soup or casserole).
Flour tortillas are used to make soft tacos, especially popular now when filled with fajitas (strips of marinated and grilled skirt steak or chicken breast) and can be wrapped around beans, meat, potatoes or about anything else to make burritos. Fried burritos are known as chimichangas.
The tortilla, whether flour or corn, can do almost anything in culinary terms and "is perhaps the most versatile piece of foodstuff the world has ever known," says Diana Kennedy, culinary expert and author of The Tortilla Book.