THE ORIGIN OF MASA
And Why it is Still Considered Bad Luck to Drop a Tortilla
“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”—Laura Esquivel
Teosinte grass originally grew in Central America and Mexico during Pre-Columbian times. When the plant was cultivated into corn, several thousand years ago, the kernels were small and resembled the seeds on a wheat stalk. Since maize could be eaten fresh or dried and stored, the domestication of the plant was critical to the early survival of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and native North Americans.
The Mesoamerican civilization discovered the process of nixtamalization in 3,000 BC. “Nixtamalization” from the Aztec word “nixtamalli,” a combination of the words for ashes and dough, involves cooking and steeping corn in an alkaline solution to soften the kernel’s tough outer layer. After the liquid is drained and the pericarp, or skin, removed, the batch of corn is ground into the dough known as masa. Not only does nixtamalization allow the grain to absorb water quickly and grind more easily, but it also increases the bioavailability of the then-unknown niacin.
The Aztecs revered corn and honored the plants with deities. Per Aztec legend, Quetzalcoatl, the God of civilization, collected precious bones from the underworld and sprinkled them with his blood. He took the sacred bones to Coatlicue, the mother of the gods, who milled them. From the kneaded dough, she created the first two humans.
The gods watched as their fledglings became weak with hunger. While the gods were trying to figure out what to feed us, Quetzalcoatl noticed a red ant carrying a corn kernel out of a mountain. He turned himself into a black ant, and then went into Tonacatépetl, the Mountain of Our Sustenance. Quetzalcoatl found the hidden corn and brought it back to where the deities lived. The gods chewed the corn and put some of the corn paste into our mouths. And that was our first taste of food.
For thousands of years, maize had spiritual and religious significance. From birth, when the umbilical cord would be cut over a maize cob, to death, when a small piece of maize dough was placed in the mouth of the deceased, maize played a central role in the cultures of Mesoamerica.
The Aztecs ate twice daily, with the main meal being served during the hottest time of the day. This mid-afternoon meal consisted of “tlaxcalli” a flat maize bread eaten with sauces and served with whole beans, avocados, squash and fruit.
Pozole, from the Nahuatl “potzolli” which means foamy, is a soup that was served during special occasions and rituals. Hominy boiled with the skin of sacrificed human prisoners—was served in communal ceremonies.
For the Spanish conquistadors, the story of masa began in 1519, when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico. The first mention of corn appears in a second letter from Cortés to King Charles V of Spain. In the letter dated 1520, he wrote, ” . . maize, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and Terra-firma…”
The Aztecs served the Spaniards “tlaxcalli,” a name they changed to “tortilla” in honor of the “little cake” of their homeland. Other masa-based dishes served were “chīllapītzalli” the Nahuatl words for “chili” and “flute” The dish eventually became known as enchiladas, and “chīlāquilitl” known today as chilaquiles.
At Coyoacán the Spaniards also enjoyed the “tamalii,” a word they altered to “tamale.” The “wrapped food,” as the Nahuatl name translated, was filled with a variety of meats, seafood, vegetables, insects, worms, fungi, nuts and fruit and wrapped in corn husks, avocado leaves or banana leaves. These portable morsels would prove beneficial for the conquistadors’ future travels.
Corn (batches of tamales and stacks of tortillas) was among the foods taken back to Europe. The plant quickly spread throughout France, Italy, southeastern Europe, and northern Africa. By 1575, corn was making its way into western China, and had become important in the Philippines and the East Indies.
Back in Mexico, Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun (1450-1590), assembled a compendium of all things relating to native history and customs that might be useful for Christianizing the Aztecs. The following is Father Sahagún’s description of a tamale vendor: “He sells meat tamales, turkey meat packets, plain tamales, tamales with chili,…frog tamales, pocket gopher tamales: tasty, tasty, very tasty.”
In 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed to the United States and became the 28th state. The country’s borders shifted, but the Mexicans remained, along with their food and culture. Taquerias of Tejas, now Texas, grew in popularity and spread throughout the southwest. When Mexico’s revolution of 1848 brought an influx of Mexican refugees to the states, the demand for Mexican food grew.
In 1914 a Midwestern housewife, Bertha Haffner-Ginger, recorded the first masa recipe in English. “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book” introduced authentic Mexican food to Anglo-Americans.
Equivalent to that embarrassing 7th grade yearbook picture, the tortilla’s least flattering moment occurred in 1938. To make tortillas available to more Americans, El Paso began selling a canned version. Although almost extinct, canned tortillas are still manufactured by companies for survivalist rations.
In the 1940s, electric motors powered wet-grain grinders began making masa for the first time. By the 1970s, tortilla-making machines produced hot tortillas every two seconds! Despite mechanization, corn tortillas in Mexico are still far from standardized. They are made from white, yellow, blue, or red corn and are anywhere from two inches to 12 inches in diameter.
The ancient process of making masa is still used today to make tortillas, tamales, gorditas, hominy and a variety of regional dishes. Masa is a culinary mainstay of the Mexican culture and is consumed daily by 94 percent of the population, regardless of social class. As one of Mexico’s staples, tortillas constitute more than half the daily calories and protein for the poor.
Although maize is no longer sacred in Mexico, it is still considered bad luck to drop a tortilla.
TAMPONS WILL TAKE YOUR VIRGINITY