A Very Short History of the Tortilla

The Mexican-style tortilla has such a long history, it’s almost impossible to write anything about it. It’s safe to say that something very similar to today’s corn tortilla dates as far back as corn itself, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years. But the technique — of creating a grain-based paste or gruel and cooking it on a hot surface — probably goes back several thousand years further. For indeed native peoples of the New World were collecting and consuming other types of grains well before teosinte mutated into the maize we know today. Though I don’t know for certain, it seems like a safe bet that Mesoamerican peoples made proto-pancakes out of them as well.

The process of treating corn with lime, nixtamalization, is a relatively recent development, only about 3,500 years according to some estimates. But there’s a lot to be said for newfangled variety, and I’ll get into that later in the week.

Of course it took Old World colonists to introduce wheat flour into the tortilla mix. Purists consider the flour tortilla to be an abomination, but let me ask you: where would the burrito be without it? A corn tortilla, lacking gluten, has nowhere near the strength nor the flexibility to contain that sort of food load. Some would argue that the burrito isn’t authentic Mexican food. That’s absolutely true. But then tortillas stopped being strictly Mexican half a century or more ago. Since then Americans have found all sort of uses for the corn tortilla and the flour tortilla alike. I imagine many more uses have yet to be discovered, which is why both forms of this ancient bread should be kept vibrant.

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