We Are What We Eat: A Comalapan adventure introduced by a corny titleAround town I like to ask the question, “How many tortillas do you eat in a day?” They usually laugh at such a thought, and kind of lowball it, “Five, maybe six,” they say. What they mean to say, though, is five or six in a meal.
When I decided to switch to a tortilla diet, I went to the local tienda (shop) to buy corn. I asked the owner how many pounds to buy and she said her family goes through five pounds every two days. After stating this she really concentrated, thinking back to what she ate and making sure to be accurate and informative. Slowly she explained, “At breakfast…we have tortillas, around ten…we snack on tortillas, at lunch…we have tortillas, in the afternoon…we have some tortillas, at dinner…we eat tortillas, sometimes at night we also have tortillas!” There is so much consumption of tortillas that they have their own verb for preparing them that literally means “to tortilla.” Supposedly Giovanni’s mom taught me how to tortiar, but Fidelia would disagree.
Shortly after I arrived in Comalapa, I started hanging out with Giovanni, one of the local Long Way Home (LWH) construction crew. Turns out that on Fridays and Saturdays he studies cooking in a nearby city and so I knew his house was the spot to learn to make tortillas. When I arrived for my lesson, Giovanni was still in the city and his mom was quietly doing laundry while two of her younger sons were running at the wall of dirt in the back, trying to jump up it. Their family compound is a big open plot of dirt with a stack of bricks sitting in the middle housing stray toys and random cloths. On the right is a hobbit-sized brick room for bathing behind which are a few sheets of corrugated metal creating storage areas. The main structure dominates the east side of the enclosure.
As I continue to get my bearings, I notice the kids throw their tiny toy car at the wall (making the accompanying vroom sound), and then use this extra speed to try again to clear the jump. Slow and calm, Giovanni’s mom looked up and welcomed me. A moment of silence later she left her pila (sink), brought out a plastic chair, and plopped it in the kitchen facing the stove and left me alone to continue cleaning clothes.The plancha stove is a simple metal slab over a firebox encased in a concrete pedestal. This family has the chimney at the end for ventilation, not always the case in a country where many of the leading causes of death are respiratory-related. The long, hot, metal plancha is a perfect surface for tortiaring, and cooking in general, leaving me wishing the one at LWH’s volunteer house was functional.
Giovanni arrived home and I snapped out of my revere to find a horde had descended on their kitchen stations, Mama Giovanni conducting. Giovanni was on plantains, another woman and two older girls were slapping down tortillas from the bowl of dough that had appeared, and a handful of children sitting next to the heating stove and laughing at my bad Spanish. Mama Giovanni turned to me and showed me the corn, asking me to pick up a piece and feel its softness. Why did it matter if it was soft? “This,” she says to me, pointing to a pot of corn sitting in murky, yellowish water, “is what becomes the masa.” She said it as if she had just taught me how to make the masa dough all by myself. Before I could come out with one of my many lingering questions, she asked if I´d like to try to tortilla.
I followed their motions exactly, but my hands somehow produced a splatter shape, cracked all around like a snowflake. It also tasted different, a chewy and off-crispy that was the clear black swan amidst its fluffy cousins. By now the fire under the stove was crackling hot, and tortillas were being thrown all over the metal slab. One women was adding more tortillas, leaving room for the pot of soup, while another of the girls was flipping them all, revealing a nice brown char.
Despite Giovanni being the chef, his mom was definitely the head cook here – she cut up the potatoes and boiled them with a tomato until it was soft enough to crush in the water. She added noodle shells and dished out bowls when it was ready a few minutes later. No forks or knives, we just dipped the fresh rounds into the soup, and chased it all down with a thick plantain drink reminiscent of apple sauce.
All the family members could explain how to tortilla and over dinner they all did as I took notes. The girls were excitedly talking over each other to get from one step to the next, as an older lady fetched the limestone water that they apparently add during the boiling process.
This whole adding limestone to the corn, by the way, a traditional technique used all over town, was new to many Long Way Home staff members, even the ones who have been living here for a while. A bit confused about the why and how of the limestone myself, the next day I went to our neighbor Fidelia´s tienda to investigate further.I walked in, calling, “Buenas,” then waited. A head jutted out the side window on my right, and with strong eye contact she looked at me and said, “Huh? You need something?” Apparently the window connected to her house, “You just wait, I’ll be right there, just wait, just wait.” Speaking in a slow and concerned Spanish, changing all her “r´s” to an “sh” as all the older local Kaqchikel Maya do, she said, “So you are trying to make tortilla, no, no, no, you must do it right. What kind of corn do you have?” To my confused look she responded “No, no, no, who taught you? You must soak the limestone in water, and then add it before the corn. You might have to start over! Is the corn soft? How long has it been in? First you need to soak the limestone in water, and then add it to the pot without water. What type of corn to do you have? You need to soak the limestone in water!” She continued to talk in circles as she tried to explain what I needed to do. Before leaving she made sure to emphasize, “Next time you buy corn, bring it to me so I can cook it the right way!” Tortillas are not just a preference, they are a way of life. I found out later that 67% of families in Comalapa live off less than $2USD a day. This gives them just enough money to buy a vegetable or beans to accompany the tortillas that the women spent the day making from the corn the men spent the day cultivating. Corn is so important here that the Mayans believed humans actually were created out of ears of it!
While I may not be ready to buy in to the creation myth as depicted on the town mural I pass daily, I have gotten my “tortiaring” schedule down. Each evening I buy corn on my way home from work and boil it for an hour before bed. At snack time the next morning, I have it ground into masa at place near the school. During lunch I tortiar and with a fresh tomato, lime from the park, and a stray avocado that fell on the construction site, I’ve got a meal.
Learning to make tortillas was not just a lesson in cooking, but it was a lesson in culture, and a reason to learn and laugh with locals. It has taught me the local diet, the array of corn vocab in Spanish, and it continues to earn respect from mothers who laugh in shock at the idea of a male foreigner making tortillas for all his meals. Now there is more than a shirt dirtied from construction and white bearded face to identify me around town, there is also my oddly shaped grey pot and green head wrap, that holds and transports my corn as it goes from kernel, to masa, to my stomach, day after day after day.
by Ariel Vardy