Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hard work of everyday living: the tortilla

BMy own modest efforts have increased my appreciation for the hard work it takes to feed, clothe and care for oneself and one's family here in highland Guatemala. 

Let's start with food, the basic stuff of life. Corn, primarily in the form of handmade tortillas, is the staple food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, people eat tortillas, accompanied by cheese or eggs or beans in the morning, soup (perhaps) and/or cheese and/or eggs and/or beans for lunch, and the same for dinner. Corn flakes and other processed breakfast cereals are widely available and children seem to eat them; oatmeal is also abundant at open-air markets and stores. But most meals involve tortillas (or sometimes plain steamed tamales: I don't entirely get the attraction of these although I eat them when they are served. I like the slightly crisp texture of tortillas right off the comal, and also the even crisper surface of tortillas that have been reheated so that they are slightly tostado or toasted). 

Maseca and other prepackaged brands of masa harina are available in the stores, but I have only twice been served tortillas in someone's home that were made with Maseca. From some reading I did a while back, the introduction and popularity of Maseca has made a dramatic shift in some parts of Mexico -- in terms of women's work in the household and also probably in terms of agricultural production (why spend time and energy cultivating your own fields when you can purchase imported pre-packaged masa?).  However, subsistence agriculture and hand-made tortillas do not seem to be in imminent danger from Maseca (unequal distribution of land, limited resources, and migration of young able bodied adults are probably more troublesome).

Making the day's tortillas starts, for many families, months ahead of time when they plant the fields. After the corn is harvested and the cobs spread outside to dry, many families still remove the dried kernels by hand. Two days ago on a trip to Dona V's household to take some photographs to send to her son in the U.S., two women (one very young and one very old) were preparing corn. The young woman wielded a large stick, and beat the corn cobs (under a burlap or other cloth sack), and then the older woman removed the loosened kernels by hand.  It is also possible to buy dried corn kernels by the sack or by the pound in markets and at some stores. 

But once one has obtained a supply of corn kernels, it still takes advance planning and effort to get the day's tortillas ready.  The kernels then have to be cooked with some lime added to remove the husks. This usually takes place the day before (although if one gets up very very early and doesn't want breakfast until later, or if one has leftover tortillas that can be heated for breakfast, I assume you could get away with cooking the corn on the same day). Then you rub the corn to remove the husks, and drain most of the liquid.

Early in the morning, usually starting around 6 a.m. but perhaps even earlier (6 is as early as I've hit the streets here, since it's still a bit dark), women and girls start taking the corn to one of the handful of places where someone has invested in a small electric mill, to grind their corn.  Those who live farther up from the center of town, out beyond where the pavement ends (that was an alternate name for this blog, by the way, "where the pavement ends"), probably have to set out at around 5:30 or 5:45 to get to the mill by 6.  

Like women in so many parts of the world, women here (and not only indigenous women) carry the corn (and many other things besides) on top of their heads, normally, in plastic basins or bowls that are sold in varying sizes and colors in the markets and at many stores. Often they cover the corn with a woven servilleta (literally napkin, but an all-purpose term that refers to any kind of woven cloth that is used around the house or kitchen, for grabbing hot pots, wiping things up, drying things off, and so forth). 

I have not been inside the mills here but the house where I stayed in a rural aldea on my first trip had a mill, and the women from neighboring homesteads would start lining up on the benches and chairs outside the small room where the mill was located by 6, sometimes chatting quietly while they waited.

After the corn is ground, then you take it back home where hopefully someone has already gotten the fire going. Usually women knead the dough a bit so that it is more pliant and evenly textured. Then you grab a handful, usually with moistened hands (a lot of people keep a small dish of water nearby) and slap and shape it out into an even round, and slap it directly onto the surface of the heated wood burning stove. The stove surface is a long rectangle, and there are several round disks, usually of different sizes, that can be removed so that you can put a pot closer to the flames to heat more rapidly. But to make tortillas you need much of the surface, although if you are cooking beans or a stew that takes a long time to prepare, you just slap the tortillas onto the remaining surface around the pots.

Most people just use their hands to press and rotate the tortillas a bit so that they cook evenly (as different parts of the stove surface heat unevenly), and to flip the tortillas. As they are ready, the cook takes them off the stove and usually wraps them in a clean servilleta. Many households have hand-embroidered square cloths (usually a store-bought cotton gingham or muslin) that they use for wrapping tortillas; others prefer patterned woven cloths that are somewhat thicker. Some households have baskets or bowls that are especially designed for keeping tortillas warm; when well wrapped in cloth they stay warm for a while. 

I have not seen pre-packaged (that is, commercially manufactured) tortillas for sale in stores here, Sta Cruz or Antigua. The one upper-middle class household I visited in Guatemala City had a live in domestic worker one of whose daily responsibilities was to make tortillas.  However, the markets are full of women standing over portable metal stoves making tortillas for sale (5 for a quetzal) and several of the local stores also sell fresh tortillas.  Most are made of yellow or white corn, but I am especially fond of the blue corn tortillas; they have a slightly earthier, nuttier taste (to my palate).

I have not mastered the art of tortilla-making. Mine are thicker and not as even or uniformly shaped and sized as those made by most 8-year old girls in rural households. I haven't made any here in the new home yet; I'd have to buy some masa (probably some of the vendors who make tortillas in the market might sell me some masa; in El Salvador, it was not unusual for women who were pressed for time to purchase masa from a vendor and at least cook their own tortillas and pupusas, but that doesn't seem to be the case here; I'll have to investigate).

People use tortillas as utensils, breaking off pieces and using them to scoop up beans or pieces of vegetable and meat from a stew. They also just sprinkle them with salt or dip them into home-made hot sauce and eat them on the side. One of my friend's daughters likes to reheat tortillas on a comal (a flat pan used for cooking tortillas over an open fire or a gas as opposed to wood-burning stove) with fresh cheese on top.

I am not the only female in highland Guatemala who cannot make a good tortilla. Some  girls in more middle-class families (or those with middle class aspirations), who have extended their education beyond primary school, do not know how to make tortillas (although I think most of their mothers, even if they have jobs outside the home and careers, do).


  1. I have bought Masa at our local Key Food supermarket here in NYC and tried making tortillas by hand. Miserable thick lumpy #FAIL. I WANT A TORTILLA PRESS for my next birthday! Or a Central American mama to teach me how to get them thin, even, and round using my hands. Any chance you could video tape for us a woman pressing out tortillas?

  2. My only helpful suggestions are that you need more water than you think, you need to knead the dough a fair amount, and that the central americans don't make their tortillas very thin.