Evolution of the Tortilla

Masa harina. Fine sea salt. Water.

Three simple ingredients that kickstarted the evolution of a multitude of Mexican dishes. Tortillas, specifically, corn tortillas that later give rise to its descendant, flour tortillas, have been a staple in Mexican cuisine and since the migration and close relations between the two countries has also been a staple in American dining. From the Aztecs grounding corn kernels on a metate to now being factory manufactured and packaged for ‘Taco Tuesday’ in American homes, the tortilla has come a long way. Such a simple dish with such a powerful and versatile use abroad in many cultures has to have a foundation rooted in something of importance. To further understand the background of the tortilla and its present day use in America it’s crucial we dive deeper into its Mexican origins, including the social climate and technology during that period.

Mesoamerican Roots

Corn, which had been in use in Mesoamerica as early as 3000B.C. had real significance to the Aztecs and Mayans who had first developed the grain before the Spaniards came. At the time Aztec food supply came from farm laborers and horticulturalists who specialized in seeding and crop rotation. Irrigation practices were also used across the Aztec Empire. Their diet consisted primarily of fruits, vegetables, domestic game local to the area and crops such as maize, beans, sage, chayote, red and green tomatoes, and chile peppers gathered while hunting and harvesting. The people of the Sierra Madre had first grown corn by hybridizing wild grasses in the mountains. It was viewed highly as the foundation of life and humanity itself; “According to legend, human beings were made of corn,” (What’s Cooking America: Tortilla and Taco History). By the time Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico (‘the new world’) in 1519 these flat corn breads were already in use and called tlaxcalli– later renamed tortillas by the Spanish. After the Spanish and Aztec War, in which Spain took over Tenochtitlan, a Spanish Priest, Bernardino de Sahagun, whose goal was to convert the natives to Christianity (and mainly loathed native customs) did detail the tortilla discovery in his manuscript, Historia General De Las Cosas De Nueva Espana which was then sent back to Spain. Tortillas at this time acted as a main source of energy and were being sold and disbursed in native Mexican markets, “It was often eaten plain, dipped in a chili sauce, or stuffed with meats, beans, squash, and other ingredients” (The Original Grande: The History of the Tortilla). Already here we see the versatility of this item, serving as a type of bread that can compliment almost any dish. Although the Spanish may have weeded out many Native Mesoamerican traditions and cultural practices, the tlaxcalli is one thing that stuck.

Tlaxcalli Recipe

  1. Grab your metate.
  2. Soak or boil your corn kernels in lime and water to remove the kernels from the skin. This process is called nixtamalization. 
  3. Let sit for 8 hours to soften.
  4. Wash repeatedly to remove outer skin.
  5. Ground your corn kernels on the metate until it reaches a dough consistency called masa.
  6. Add water and salt to taste into the masa.
  7. Separate into golf-ball sized lumps.
  8. Flatten and cook on a hot grill or comal.

Modern day recipes will include a tortilla press, pre-grounded masa or masa flour, and chemicals such as calcium hydroxide to bring out different flavors and vitamins in the corn.

The metate, a Spanish word for metlatl in Náhuatl, is a hard stone made of volcanic rock used for grinding grain and cacao beans in Mayan and Aztec civilizations. It typically stands  on three legs and is accompanied by a hand roller that is common in almost every home at the heart. This tool became so easily recognized for its ‘dull rumble’ in the morning from the mother of Aztec homes grinding corn to make tortillas. This tool, dating back 6 or 7 thousand years, is widely used across Mexico and Central America. The metate along with the rest of the tortilla making process is shown to be not only laborious but time consuming as well; to get the perfectly made tortilla one must set aside about 8 hours. Today’s process for making corn tortillas takes about 2 seconds using high-processing manufacturing. The obvious question to ask is: how did we manage to go from one process to another? And an even more important question to ask is, do they still taste the same?

Tortillas in American Supermarkets

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century tortillas began to have a big impact in American cuisine. Electric motors were put to use providing power to wet grain grinders needed for grinding up the masa. By the 1960s, small scale machines were invented to produce and cook tortillas every two seconds. For the manufacture and production of tortillas in the United States, not only was a higher scale needed, but a shorter time process along with preservatives were needed to meet the rapidly growing pace of Americans. Tortillas, along with hard taco shells, frozen burritos and other Mexican and Caribbean foods started mass production in the 50s, tapping into the Latino market while catering to the needs of all Americans. With Mission Tortillas being founded in Los Angeles in 1977 by GRUMA and expanding throughout the US, followed by other popular brands such as Guerro, Hola Nola and more around the same time, America was on track to incorporate Mexican cuisine in almost every home. Mexican taquerias were already popping up around the 20s then became popularized in the 50s once the Latin market was given more attention by consumers. After the rise of flour tortillas, which is a cheaper and easier to make version, this staple became more accessible.

Advertisement, Gift of Art Velasquez

“Chicago entrepreneur Art Velasquez founded Azteca Foods in 1970, which sold Mexican and Central American foods in supermarkets across the country. Azteca extended the shelf life of its flour and corn tortillas by adding a preservative into the masa, dough. The mold was used in restaurants to bake taco salad shells” (Smithsonian National Museum of American History). Preservatives, which weren’t heavily used in Mexican tortillas, which were often eaten fresh, completely changed the game for consumers who could just buy a pack from the store and store the tacos in a shelf until it was time to cook them. It became an easy, grab-and-go food item for parties and events. The Azteca Food advertisement, dating back to the 70s even includes recipes for consumers to try, incorporating tortilla use in enchiladas while promoting their product.

How Much is Too Much?

While it’s a beautiful thing to finally have diversity in American cuisine, we can’t deny that the original recipes and production of food had to be altered and is still being altered to accompany our tastes. Brands like Mission and Guerrero amongst others starting in the 2000s introduced products like the “low carb” or “gluten free” tortilla or even the “keto friendly” tortilla (which, yes, I have tried).

These are alterations that are becoming more and more modern but simultaneously are things that only American culture deems important for its lifestyle. In a sense it’s ignoring the traditional process and ingredients needed in order to be ‘hip’ to new dietary trends and health fads. It does, however, expand its use to people who do have dietary restrictions as people use tortillas more for seemingly healthier options like wraps. Americans are also obsessed with having endless variety in products, which is why brands like these get to keep experimenting with different flavors and functions to cater specifically to every consumer. This strays us further and further from the simplicity and flavor of the Aztecs corn tortillas: masa harina, water and salt; weather this is a positive movement or a negative one is really up to the average tortilla eater, but the rapid expansion of theses products leads us to believe the general consensus is ‘all for it’. 

My Taco Experience

(My Keto Friendly Tacos)

While cooking with these tortillas I had assumed the texture would be drastically different than those of a regular flour tortilla but was pleasantly surprised. I may have cooked them a little too long on the stove but they weren’t too hard and were still bendy and slightly chewy. What’s different about these tortillas is that they are made to be low carb, and high fat with adequate protein, which is very customized compared to the ‘OG’ tortilla. Other products like this include the whole wheat tortilla and the spinach wrap– all meant to adhere to the ironically growing obsession with health in a predominantly obese country.

Since I, myself, have never made my own corn tortillas from scratch or even had fresh authentic tortillas from scratch (I don’t think), I’m not able to fully compare but can only imagine what the difference could be based on other accounts. Growing up in Northern California in the Bay Area around a large Hispanic population, specifically Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadorian and Peruvian cultures, I’ve grown very, very fond of hispanic foods. You couldn’t turn a corner in Oakland, California without stopping at your local taco truck. So much so that once I moved down to New Orleans and saw a lack of Mexican taquerias, Taco trucks and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ spots I became terribly homesick. Overtime I have been able to find a few of my favorites down here, including Tacos and Beer and El Taco Loco. One thing I’ve noticed however is that many of the Mexican restaurants aren’t usually owned or operated by Hispanic people. As Mexican cuisine became more and more incorporated into our lives from the wrong people, the line between appreciation and appropriation became very thin. The combination of high speed manufacturing, lack of real Mexican taquerias and chains like Taco Bell with real recipes being forgotten, tortillas became Americanized like many other foreign foods. Much of Mexican food in America today is an adaptation based on ingredients we have here: “Hamburger instead of offal meat. Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato—these are all foods that Mexican-Americans start to incorporate into their diet” In 1945 this new kind of Mexican food was given a name: Tex-Mex, given this name to represent the twist Texan cooks put on traditional Mexican dishes. From the close proximity and consistent migration of Mexicans to Texas, there were a good amount of recipes crossing over. “Mexican restaurants, whose popularity coincided with the arrival of large numbers of Mexican immigrants after 1950, have for the most part followed the form and style of what is called “Tex-Mex” food, an amalgam of Northern Mexican peasant food with Texas farm and cowboy fare. […]The combination platter of enchiladas, tacos, and tortillas became the unvarying standards of the Tex-Mex menu, while new dishes like chimichangas (supposedly invented in the the 1950s at El Charro restaurant in Tucson, Arizona) and nachos (supposedly first served at a concession at Dallas’s State Fair of Texas in 1964…) were concocted to please the American palate” —America Eats Out, John Mariani [William Morrow:New York] 1991 (p. 80-1). So many changes and additions to Mexican recipes in America have brought about a whole new conjoined cuisine that many have grown to know and love.

As more and more different cultures continue to migrate in and out of America and new restaurants begin to pop up for people to try, more fusion plates will inevitably come to follow. My only hope is that somewhere down the line recipes will remain in their original form. A real way to expand the American palate is to try food as it was intended, not everything has to be ultra preserved for packaging and gluten free. It’s easy to get used to our overly processed food with extra added flavors and chemicals but through traveling and understanding the history of the things we love we can preserve them for generations to come.

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Aztec Food & Agriculture.” World History Encyclopedia, Https://Www.worldhistory.org#Organization, 12 Dec. 2022, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/723/aztec-food–agriculture/#:~:text=The%20Aztec%20diet%20was%20dominated,also%20a%20valuable%20food%20source

“Flour Tortillas.” Mission Foods, https://www.missionfoods.com/products/tortillas/flour-tortillas/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-JacBhC0ARIsAIxybyPD_h04tZNPrk5YiUI7dGiTt6k-GwL7lRllY0fen7Z0lR8bDBE4ZIgaAmeeEALw_wcB

“Flour Tortillas: Baking Processes.” BAKERpedia, 8 Sept. 2021, https://bakerpedia.com/processes/flour-tortillas/.

Haffner-Ginger, Bertha. “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book.” California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger (a Project Gutenberg EBook), 30 Apr. 2012, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/39586/39586-h/39586-h.htm

Magazine, Smithsonian. “Where Did the Taco Come from?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 3 May 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/where-did-the-taco-come-from-81228162/

Mayan Family Mexican Restaurant. “The Tortilla’s History: A Look Back through Thousands of Years: Mayan Family Mexican Restaurant.” Mexican Restaurant in Lacey WA from Mayan Family Mexican Restaurant, 9 Oct. 2019, https://www.mayanmexican.com/blog/the-tortillas-history-a-look-back-through-thousands-of-years/.

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline: FAQs Mexican and Tex Mex Foods.” Food Timeline, 10 Mar. 2015, https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmexican.html

Ruddock, Adrian. “My Metate & Me: Making Corn Tortillas a Mano.” Familia Kitchen, Familia Kitchen, 4 Jan. 2021, https://familiakitchen.com/my-metate-and-me-making-corn-masa-and-tortillas-a-mano/

Saldivar, S.O. Serna, et al. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Academic, 2003.

Stradley, Linda. “Tortilla and TACO History.” What’s Cooking America, 1 Nov. 2016, https://whatscookingamerica.net/history/tortilla_taco_history.htm

“Tortillas at the Supermarket.” National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 3 Mar. 2021, https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/resetting-table/tortillas-supermarket

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