Recently back from Mexico City and full of big city tastes. I was, as I always am in Mexico City, bowled over by all the tastes from each region coming together in the cacophonic way that only a city of that size and force has. I ate delicate conchas with their magical scalloped pattern. Tacos that were bigger than any taco I have ever seen filled with perfectly spiced rib-eye steak. Sweet pink tamales and rich atole that cut through the cold of the high-altitude morning.
There were so many choices. A million different ways to fill myself up and yet as I sopped up my beans, scooped up the last few bites of my chilaquiles, I found my tongue and something deeper wondering about the tortillas. They were different, not quite right, I wasn’t sure how.
Here in Yucatan and especially in the half of my life spent in the village where I work, I and everyone else eat a lot of tortillas. They come in big warm stacks neatly fitting into the rest of a meal. They make the spicy just right with their sweetness. They let your sop up the nutrients of those rich broths and sauces. They hold up meats, vegetables, and eggs. Here in Yucatan (and most of Mexico), it just doesn’t feel like food without tortillas.
Now that doesn’t mean all tortillas exist in an easy comparable way to each other. Tortillas can big or small. Thick and hearty, or thin and light. They can be made by machines churned out quickly and efficiently in big stacks ready for family sunday lunches. Or made one by one over the comal for each meal tucked into gourds by hands that feel for just the right moment. Sometimes they are made from nixtamal. Other times maseca. Each with it’s own taste and offering.
Tortillas are like secret windows into the meal. They are always round but vary greatly in their thickness, color, and body. In the pueblo, the tortillas I eat mostly are hand-made from nixtamal. They are made each day through a proccess of soaking, cooking, milling, and forming the corn into neat circles. They taste like here. Rich, sweet, earthy and slightly irregular. They fill me up with the expertise, thoughtfulness, a practical love that permeates life, and a contradictory reality of this moment existing in between the future and past of how and what food is.
But somehow in Mexico City, the tortillas tasted strange. Maybe it was that I ate in restaurants where food is made for a general audience rather specific people. Or maybe it’s the corn coming from all corners of Mexico to be milled together in a slightly unsatisfying combination of dry and wet, yellow, white, high-altitude, low-land, caballero, milpero anomalies where no one is quite sure what the taste should be. I don’t know. But I do know that here, in Yucatan, in the hot, rocky soil, where it’s been a good year for corn the taste of these tortillas is known still.