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On Tortillas

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Thanks to globalization, the tortilla is in decline.

From the city to the countryside, the Mexican tortilla is in crisis. Consumption has dropped nearly 45 percent in the last 35 years, according to the nutritionist Julieta Ponce of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Xochimilco, to 125 pounds per person in 2016 from 225 pounds in 1982, as Mexicans eat more bread and fast food.

Quality has suffered in the race for the cheapest tortilla; nearly half the supply is now made with industrially produced masa harina, or corn flour, like Maseca.

Cristina Barros, an author who investigates Mexican cuisine, says the perilous state of the tortilla is a red alert for Mexico’s wider social ills, including obesity, poverty and emigration. “If the tortilla is not functioning well, if it’s not good quality, there are going to be a bunch of problems,” particularly for tortilla makers and corn farmers, Ms. Barros said. “When we decided to change our traditional food for industrial food, this epidemic of obesity shot up.”

The country’s embrace of free trade in the 1980s contributed to this change, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which says the rate of obesity among Mexicans rose to 20.3 percent in 2016 from 7 percent in 1980.

In May, more than 75 organizations and businesses created the Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla to promote corn tortillas. There are wheat-flour tortillas in Mexico, especially in the north, but the group’s focus is on corn as the bedrock of Mexican cuisine. The alliance is pursuing a strategy that includes research, educational events, media campaigns and lobbying.

Migration is also a big part of this, as tortilla quality in the United States is abysmal and new food traditions become part of Mexican culture. For example, cheap Chinese buffets are really big in Mexico now, not because of a huge Chinese population there, though they had their share of 19th century Chinese migration too, but because the back of American Chinese buffets largely consists of Mexican workers and it is easy to replicate back home and appealing to so many who have lived in the U.S.

It’s very easy to overly romanticize traditional foods such as tortillas, which is unpaid women’s labor and hard labor at that. Another piece of these changes is women entering the paid Mexican workforce in large numbers. At the same time, if you’ve never eaten great tortillas produced in Mexico, you just don’t understand the entire issue. Thanks to a wife who writes about Oaxaca, I’ve been to the heart of great Mexican food traditions and it’s simply amazing. A great tortilla is a wonderful unbelievable thing. That’s an unforgettable taste. Losing that taste would be a huge loss to global foodways.

Now, as for the United States, it’s a bit unreasonable to expect traditionally made tortillas using heirloom corn, each breed with its own process of nixtamalization. But at the very least, never, ever, ever buy tortillas mass produced in grocery stores. Corn tortillas as most of you know them are inedible. I am amazed they are even sold and ever caught on. At least mass-produced flour tortillas can be made edible with some work, but those pre-packaged corn tortillas are an atrocity. If you have access to a local tortilla shop, use it. If you have any sizable Mexican population in your community, you will find one. You can also buy properly made masa, even if it certainly not going to be of the quality one can traditionally get in Mexico, and then make them yourself with a press. With Rhode Island having a very small Mexican population, this is a problem for me, so I tend to bring back a bunch when I travel. It helps for awhile. I have recently been informed of a place that makes good ones nearby, so we shall see.

But in any case, never buy those pre-packaged corn tortillas again. Yuck.

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