Tortilla Story

According to a Mayan creation myth, the gods went through a trial-and-error process in creating mankind.

At first, they tried forming man from mud, but that wasn’t successful. This initial effort only resulted in a man that was weak and mindless and didn’t hold up in the rain.

Then they tried making man from wood. This creature was stronger, but he lacked the spark the gods were looking for.

Finally, after much discussion, the Mayan gods crafted man from corn, which provided him with strength, intelligence and agility. Thus, the human race was born.

As this mural in San Miguel de Allende depicts, corn (maiz) holds a sacred place in Mexican culture.

Mexicans are called “people of the corn.” I’ve even seen this saying written on murals here: “Sin maiz no hay país” (Without corn there is no country).

According to my research, corn (maiz) was first domesticated about ten thousand years ago in south-central Mexico. Mexico is home to more than two thousand identified varieties of native corn and has the oldest varieties found in any place in the world. The roots of corn in Mexico go exceedingly deep.

Yes, I’ve had corn on the brain lately – especially in the form of corn tortillas, that food staple so essential to the Mexican diet. With their comida (main meal), it’s not unusual for Mexican adults to eat six or more tortillas each, I’ve been told.

But back to corn on my brain: I’ve been remembering (and writing about) the small farm animals I had on my “farmette” when I lived in Dixon, New Mexico, more than fifteen years ago.

My half-dozen beloved Rhode Island Red hens had a passion for corn – fresh, shucked, corn-on-the-cob, of course, as well as golden-yellow, factory-made corn tortillas. All I had to do to call them home, after they’d had a full day of free-ranging in my garden, was to sing, “Chickie-chickie-chick!” and wave a corn tortilla high while standing on my deck, and they would come happily scampering back to their coop.

Those artificially colored, no-doubt-preservative-filled, thick, disc-like, factory-made corn tortillas — stacked, wrapped in plastic, and found on U.S. grocers’ shelves — I now know, bore little-to-no resemblance to the real McCoy found here in Mexico.

Back to now: This past weekend I was able to visit a family in the countryside and see how they make the real thing from scratch.

Last Saturday my friend Ramiro from Guanajuato invited me to accompany him as he picked up his order of two hundred freshly made corn tortillas for a party to be held that night to celebrate his father-in-law’s eighty-seventh birthday. When we arrived at the tortilla-makers’, they had not yet completed the order; so while we waited, Ramiro explained the whole process to me:

This family grows their own field corn, he told me, then they harvest it, cook then soak the kernels overnight in a pickling-lime (calcium hydroxide) solution to remove the outer skin (the term for this step in the process is “nixtamalization”), grind the well-rinsed corn kernels to make a soft dough (masa), then, one-by-one press small rounds of the masa in a wooden tortilla press and place them on a hot, wood-fired comal until cooked on both sides.

The tortilla press and wood-fired comal at this tortilla-makers’

These last steps, especially, take a whole lot of practice, we learned. Ramiro and I tried our hand at pressing out perfectly round, uniform tortilla shapes and transferring them, without tearing, onto the hot comal. We both failed spectacularly and hilariously.

Ramiro attempting to make a tortilla

On the way back to San Miguel, passing vast, green swaths of cornfields growing up and down the rolling mountainsides of Central Mexico, Ramiro managed to eat a whole ear of grilled sweet corn-on-the-cob (liberally sprinkled with hot red chili powder) while ably driving his car, without dribbling anything on his shirt. I was amazed.

And I had to laugh. Here is a Mexican man of corn, I thought, fit for the gods – strong, intelligent, and agile.

~ ~ ~

[To see the fascinating video, “How to Turn Corn into Tortillas,” by Oxbow Farm, go to: ]


18 thoughts on “Tortilla Story”

  1. Quite an amazing driver. I can’t eat a carrot
    without spilling on my shirt, much less an ear of corn with mayo and spices!

  2. Another peek into the beautiful culture of Mexico. Thanks Bonnie for your explorations and reporting on life in and around SMA. Wish I was there.

    1. Thanks so much, Theresa, for your kind words. As it turns out, my WOWs are now read all around the world. So I’m happy to “show off” the Mexican culture a bit for those who might never make it down here.

  3. Sweet, Bonnie. Especially about Ramiro eating corn while driving his car. And your assessment of him. He’s been a good friend to you, hasn’t he. Someday, I’m sure I’ll meet him, and we can all share some corn tortillas (or corn on the cob!) xoxo

  4. I recently heard this story and I’m sorry I don’t remember the source, but, a Mexican young man went to the US and did very well financially. He brought his family up for a visit and brought them to an expensive and famous Chinese restaurant. He ordered almost everything on the menu to show off. But after the table was laden with food his parents continued to sit in anticipation. He finally asked what was wrong and they said . . . we are waiting for the tortillas. 🙂

      1. Thank you Kim. I as well as you I’m sure, are drowning in information. That is a wonderful story and really illustrates how cultural differences are important to learn about. I can credit you with the story going forward because I’m sure there will be more times to repeat it. A fun learning story. <3

  5. I can never get enough of peaks into Mexican history and culture. Thanks for this wonderful tortilla story.

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