Tortilla Talk with Elisa

I am a firm believer that food brings people together. I think everyone would agree about that. We need food to survive, and often times it is partnered with surrounding yourself with the people you love the most all around a table. At that table, you don’t just eat, you also share life, break bread, and enjoy food. If anyone gets food poisoning, everyone gets food poisoning because you all ate the same thing. It’s a sacrifice and a group effort. It’s a bonding experience. Food brings people together, not only literally, but also figuratively.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 8 years learning the Spanish language and the Hispanic culture is that Hispanic people take their time. They talk and soak in the day together. When I have traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico and Comayagua, Honduras, I have noticed the emphasis on the quality of conversation and the importance of spending time together. One of the things where this happens most is around a dinner table. The Latino people I have met in my life are some of the people that have been the most interested in my life and can keep a good conversation. They are some of the most caring and loving people I know and remind this suburban, always-on-the-go, stressed out college student the value in rest and taking your time to stop and smell the tortillas.

Food is an art, too. There are infinite ways to prepare one specific food, not to mention a whole dish of a culture. There are so many things you can do and various toppings or ingredients. While in class, we spoke about tamales and how many different types there are. It can literally take any form. You can put anything inside.

During me and Will’s fun interview with Elisa Diaz, a Mexican-American student at the University of Kentucky who was raised in Arkansas, moved to Georgia with her family, and then Kentucky for college, she shared about her family’s culture and traditions in regards to food. Elisa’s family is from Oaxaca, Mexico, a city in a southern state in Mexico.

oaxaca

Oaxaca located in the south of Mexico, near Guatemala.

One of Will’s first questions to Elisa asked, “Is there any particular dish that really makes you feel at home?” Elisa quickly responded, “Tamales!” Elisa explained to us that some people really enjoy strawberry tamales or sweet tamales that are made with masa and raisins in it
around Christmastime and New Years, but she said, “I don’t really like them, but a lot of people do!”

Her favorite type of tamale that reminded her of home was, as she said, “The kind of tamales I like is the one that has the masa in it and mole verde and then it has chicken. And some people put like some kind of cheese in it, so it’s kind of cheesy. And they have mole, like regular red mole, so those are just different types that I can think of off the top of my

strawberry

Strawberry tamales

head.”

Confused, I asked about mole and what it’s made from, because the only kind of just “regular” mole I thought there was is the brownish colored chocolate kind.  Boy, was I wrong. Elisa informed us that that is one of the many kinds, saying that chocolate mole is blended together with dried red chile peppers and chocolate, creating a very mild, sweeter type of brownish mole sauce, like what I was thinking of. On the other hand, the kind that she was talking about, mole verde, is made with tomatillos and other ingredients including chiles like jalapeño and blended with onions.

mole

Chocolate mole — YUM

Will’s question led me to wonder whether or not she believed in there being “authentic” Mexican food. I introduced the conversation we had in class with Gustavo Arellano and the questioned I raised about authenticity. I decided to ask her thoughts on if she believed it existed and if so, whether or not she felt as though she can find authentic Mexican here in Lexington. Her response?

“When I think of ‘authentic’ food, I want to say my mom’s cooking. That’s what I consider authentic. The one thing that always gets to me are the tortillas. A lot of people like flour or ‘maseca’ and, how do you say the corn one? Maize! This is going to sound dumb, but I think that the flour ones are like… I don’t consider that authentic. I feel like people just eat that because they probably don’t like the corn one.”

As Elisa said this, we all shook our heads in agree and affirmed her preference of corn tortillas. They just honestly aren’t as good. Telling us more about tortillas, she began sharing about the process her grandmother does explaining, “She’ll soak the corn, then grind it, so that’s kind of the process.”

A lightbulb above my head radiated. NIXTAMALIZATION!! I was overcome with pride with being able to hear about the process that we have learned and talked about so often.

nixtamal

The interesting process of nixtamalization

I said to her that we had learned about that in class and labeled it. The fact that I was talking to someone who is Mexican-American in 2016 about food that was prepared the same exact way during the Aztec Empire amazed me. Just like we have learned in Planet Taco, “While maize and beans alone lack vital amino acids, cooking them together complements the value of their proteins as well as their tastes. The invention of ceramic vessels was therefore important to the development of the sedentary, agrarian Olmec society in the absence of protein from domesticated animals. A final nutritional defect of maize is the shortage of usable niacin, a vitamin needed to prevent the disease pellegra, which is characterized by skin rash, intestinal problems, insanity, and death. Maize could not become the dietary staple for dense urban populations until cooks discovered the nixtamal process in which limestone or wood ash freed the chemically bound vitamin. However nutritionally sound, the recipe for tortillas required enormous physical labor from women. Arguably, they worked as hard grinding corn on the metate as did the men they fed who constructed the physical monuments of Teotihuacán, the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (Pilcher 26, 27).”

I am dumbfounded by the idea that so many years ago people were still soaking corn, still making masa, the whole nine yards! Without this process, there would be a huge danger to creating and consuming the base of Mexican food that is essential in just about every dish, which also just so happens to be one of Elisa’s favorite parts about the food of her culture: the tortillas.

Taco USA worded it beautifully: “Without the tortilla we have no taco, no burrito, no enchilada, no nacho or tortilla chip stranglehold on our sports viewing, no transmission of essential nutrients, no way for the poor to stretch out a meal by sprinkling salt on one and calling it a lunch, or cook gooey, slightly burned quesadillas. In short, with no tortilla, there is no Mexico. There is nothing.” (Arellano).

A huge part of the Mexican culture would be lost without the tortilla. I would even go so far to say that the culture of food in the United States would also be greatly affected without the tortilla due to the Hispanic culture penetrating into the United States within the past 100 years. It’s incredible what something so small can become.

“The tortilla is the essence of Mexico, what unites the country from Tijuana to the jungles of Chiapas to outer space, even if geography stretches or condenses it, fries them or rolls them or — shudder — puts them into cans, as previously discussed.” (Arellano). The tortilla takes many forms, but which ever shape it takes, it is crucial to the history and heritage of Mexico. It plays a key part in the culture.

Understanding her perspective on authenticity, she also shared about her views about Taco Bell. She told us she had never even tried Taco Bell except for the famous Mountain Dew flavored slushie, Baja Blast.

Baja_Blast_Freeze_Cup_Design.png

Baja blast

She thinks very often more “Americanized-Hispanics”are usually the ones that can and don’t mind to eat at Taco Bell. For her in particular, she is a-okay without trying it. She prefers her beloved tortillas and tamales.

I think Planet Taco says it well, stating, “A sense of authenticity, based on historic traditions of foods tied to particular locations, can be welcomed refuge from the threat of global homogenization. Nevertheless, efforts to trace a genealogy for a national cuisine confront basic historical problems, starting with the fact the pre-Hispanic peoples were not “Mexican” (Pilcher 21).” Homogenization can create the capitalism and luxury of fast-food, but all in all, people truly want a good, typical Mexican meal including fresh tortillas, frijoles (or beans), and carne asada, of course.

Speaking with Elisa helped Will and I to understand the deeper roots of Mexican food and just how true it is that food, in general, has a deep, rich, beautiful history to it. There are so many various kinds of plates and it is interesting learning more about peoples’ favorites and how exactly they are made. Sitting around a table in the library talking about Mexican food just goes to prove the fact that people love food and it literally, in this case especially, brings people together.


 

Works Cited

Arellano, Gustavo. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. New York: Scribner, 2012.

Courtenay, William & Coyle, Casey. Personal interview with Diaz, Elisa, 9 March 2016.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M.. Planet Taco. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.