The Tricky, Twisty History of Flour Tortillas

Wait, flour tortillas are Jewish? That doesn’t sound right. Actually, it sounds so wrong, I couldn’t stop wondering, wondering, all thanks to this late-night stumble-upon in the Houston Chronicle. (What am I doing looking at decade-old news stories on tortillas? Oh, who knows?) I always understood flour tortillas to be a Tex-Mex staple—and they are—but apparently, they were around long before Texas (1845) or Mexico (1824). By then, people had been grinding wheat into flour, which was mixed into masa, which was pressed into patties, which was cooked into floppy, flaky tortillas, for several centuries. Who, though?

There was a small influx of Jewish immigrants to the Texas-Mexico border region in the 1500s—conversos hiding their faith to avoid persecution—then greater numbers during the Mexican independence movement in the early 1800s. The Houston Chronicle is talking about the first wave: “Since corn was not kosher and they were accustomed to eating flat pita bread, they began to make tortillas out of wheat.”

Genius Flour Tortillas
Genius Flour Tortillas
by AngelinaLaRue

If you’re wondering why corn isn’t kosher, same. I’m Jewish but not kosher (because bacon) but some of my relatives are. Pork and shellfish: no go. Meat with milk: definitely not. But corn? Why? A little digging—and a New Yorker piece—sorted this out. Well, kind of: Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat grains (like wheat, barley, and rye) during Passover, an homage to our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt when they escaped so speedily, there was no time for bread to rise. In addition to these grains, they also don’t eat legumes and friends, like rice and corn. Ah-hah! you say. Corn! But—there’s always a but—most Jews from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East never followed such restrictions.

So, the Jews who could have created flour tortillas—the ones who moved to the New World in the 1500s—probably had nothing against corn. And they did have something against one of flour tortillas’ three ingredients: lard. Nowadays, you can make them with butter or vegetable shortening. At the time, though, lard was the only shelf-stable fat around. Which means, flour tortillas weren’t kosher. Which means, flour tortillas probably aren’t Jewish. Which means, what are they?

Corn tortillas’ history is clearer—and older. Flashback for a hot second to Mesoamerica: Mayan civilization started around 2000 B.C. Aztec civilization started sometime in the 13th century. As Margarita Carrillo Arronte describes in Mexico: The Cookbook: “The major food that the Mayans, Aztecs and other Mesoamerican people shared was corn.” Mayans believed that people were born from corn and, like the Aztecs, they worshipped corn gods, even sacrificed humans to keep them happy. To Carrillo Arronte, corn’s cultural significance can’t be overstated:

Without corn we have no country. Corn is the staple food throughout [Mexico] and especially in the Central and Southern regions where it is consumed by all Mexicans virtually every day…Dried corn saw the people of Mesoamerica through their year. The dough or masa made from ground corn kernels was pressed flat, cooked on a small pan called a comal, and eaten daily as tortillas.

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A Bit of Taco Wisdom From an 80-Year-Old SoCal Cantina
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Here’s the catch, though: Those corn tortillas weren’t called corn tortillas. They weren’t, in fact, called any one term. I chatted with Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of the Emmy- and James Beard–nominated PBS program Pati’s Mexican Table, and she referenced the Nahuatl word tlaxcalli. “But,” she said, “this was just one of many civilizations that spoke many languages.”

So where did the word tortilla come from? Follow its etymology back, back, back, and you’ll find the Spanish word torta, or cake. And the Spanish, it turns out, are the lynchpin to all of this. Their brutal New World conquest began in 1492 and reached Mexico in 1519. There were countless cultural differences between them and the native communities, not the least of which was starch preference.

Corn was crucial to the Aztecs and surrounding communities, but the Spanish were not into it. Melissa Guerra, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, explained: “There has always been a European prejudice against corn. It was seen as junk food. There’s this quote in French: Potatoes are for pigs. Corn is for cows.”

What starch did the Spanish Catholics eat, then? You guessed it—wheat. “That was the ingredient they knew and liked,” Jinich said. “Most importantly, it was an ingredient they connected to Jesus Christ. To them, wheat was holy. And corn—they didn’t know what to make of it.” In turn, they, quite literally, didn’t make anything of it. They brought wheat to the region and used that instead.

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From Carnitas to Creamy Eggs, 16 Ways to Eat Tacos All Day Long
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“Wheat traditions belong to the people of the Fertile Crescent, regardless of religion,” Guerra said. “I have heard of Germans that have claimed ownership of flour tortillas in Texas, also Lebanese. All are plausible.” But none are unequivocal. Flour tortillas’ past, it seems, doesn’t belong to any one culture.

Its present, of course, does: Mexican. In the United States, there’s a fair amount of confusion, even stigma, around flour tortillas. Some assume they aren’t authentic. Others insist that they’re inferior to corn. Jinich, who grew up in Mexico, couldn’t disagree more: “Flour tortillas are very Mexican,” she says. “I don’t choose one over the other, at all, just like any Mexican.”

Flour tortillas are certainly more common in the northern part of the country, where the terroir is more suited to growing wheat than corn. But they’re both integral to Mexican—and Tex-Mex—cuisine. And Taco Bell’s Double Decker taco. Which just wouldn’t have been a thing in the 1500s. This, it seems, is the biggest difference between when flour tortillas came to be and what they are today. Centuries ago, your preference between corn or wheat revealed where you lived, where you came from, who you worshipped. But nowadays, we can have it all.

Do you have a preference between corn or flour tortillas? Tell us why in the comments.

(via Food52)

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