Ok, I don’t actually know that for sure. But it feels true, and even if it’s not, the argument below is still true.

So why would you separate tortillas? And why is it that most American kids have never done it?

Please note: the following essay contains a few numbered questions. These are not meant as an exercise in gatekeeping. They are also not meant as any kind of comment or definition of «authenticity». They are meant to be answered in a naive and simple way, as an aid to the larger point I’m trying to make.

Let’s start at the very beginning…

What are tortillas?

Surely, the question seems superfluous. Mexican food—or at least media about Mexican food—is now widespread enough that there’s large numbers of people who know what a tortilla is and what it looks like, approximately. There’s examples and recipes of Mexican food in many languages other than Spanish1 and demand for tortillas in the USA is high enough to stock them at Wal-Mart.

Besides, the question stinks of prescriptivism in food. It’s easier to show examples of tortillas and their differences in length, width, color and doneness and accept that they all belong to a category called tortilla that—like many, many, many other cultural products—is hard or even impossible to describe with perfect accuracy and precision. Discussing «authenticity» in food is also highly unproductive and has no clear ending or goal, so I will avoid it completely.

A tortilla, then, can be defined described as:

a circular- or oval-shaped flatbread of sorts made of corn- or wheat-based dough, used extensively in Mexico and Mexican food around the world.

They are used in making—or approximating—lots of different dishes, many of which are commonly associated with Mexico. Among these dishes, there are:

…and who knows how many other dishes and variations around the world.

A tortilla is food

Quick question:

  1. How many of the above dishes do you know, at least by sight? How many can you at least describe?

Depending on where you live and the media you consume, you may know all of those or none of those or somewhere in between. Some of those aren’t «technically» made with tortillas, but can be approximated with them.

Defining a dish is tricky, and not just because of cultural distances. Even within a culturally homogeneous group dishes can be hard to define.2, 3 This is true of chilaquiles and cornbread alike.

  1. How many of those dishes can you prepare or think could prepare?

Perhaps not as many. This, again, is by no means an attempt at gatekeeping: there’s many Mexicans that may answer «zero» to this question. It’s just a means to make you think about these dishes. If I gave you the ingredients, do you think you could make some of these? What utensils would you use?

  1. How many of those have you actually eaten?
  2. How many of those do you eat regularly?

A tortilla is a tortilla is a tortilla

So far, no fundamental difference between American and Mexican people. Or American and Mexican kids, for that matter…

«Andy—I hear you ask—Why are you asking about kids?»

Don’t worry, that has not escaped my mind. But before, we need to discuss a few tortilla-centric questions.

If you’re American—or of any other non-Mexican nationality—think about how you get your tortillas. Probably from a bag at a supermarket. You might be luckier and have a tortillería nearby, so that you can get some fresh tortillas when needed.

  1. How many tortillas would you say you buy in a single purchase? A dozen? A pound? A kilogram?

Tortillas taste better fresh. Shocking, right? But of course, having perfectly fresh tortillas right out of the comal is rare, even in Mexico. Making your own masa4 and making them at every meal is doable, but time-consuming. It’s more practical to buy a bunch to reheat over a short time. The amount usually is a function of how many people are eating, how hungry they are, and whether you can be arsed to buy more tomorrow, in two days, in a week…

  1. When cooking with tortillas, how many would you say you use for a single meal or person? Are they all the ones you buy—see (v)—or are there some tortillas left? How often do you have leftover tortillas?

Of course, buying the exact amount of ingredients needed for a single meal is not practical for pretty much all ingredients. Even if you wanted to do so, it’s not practical for sellers to accommodate to every customer’s whim. I’m sure no one would sell me only half a tomato even if I only use about that for my sandwich.5

Moreover, cooking exactly one meal is also impractical in many cases. Maybe I don’t know exactly how much pasta I’m having tonight, so I might just as well cook two or three portions’ worth and eat them as needed.

  1. If you have leftover tortillas—see (vi)—, how do you deal with them? How do you store them?

I’m guessing that your answer to (vii) might hinge on the amount left over, but in any case many homes have containers for leftover food, whether they be plastic, glass or something else. Do you use a special container for tortillas, if you’re ever left with leftovers?

A tortilla is not (just) a tortilla

Now consider:

  1. If you store the leftover tortillas, how exactly do you store them? Do you use their original package? Do you store them at room temperature, on the fridge, on the freezer…?

  2. When exactly do you store the tortillas? Right after they come from the store? After a meal?

  3. How do your tortillas change over time? How would you subjectively judge their change in flavor, taste, texture, etc. when fresh and after storage?

Now, I don’t know you, but my experience is that the general answer to all these has to do with the title introduced many paragraphs ago.

Here, it’s very common6 to send a kid to the tortillería for a kilo. It’s so common that there’s secondary memes around the very idea of pocketing the change from whatever money Mom gave you to buy tortillas, and spend it on the arcade7 while the tortillas are getting cold…

…because, remember, the most common thing to happen is to get the tortillas shortly after they’ve been produced. Usually, they’re packed in paper8 and sent home still noticeably warm. So in the memetic scenario of the kid pocketing the change to play a few rounds of Street Fighter II there’s two main grievances:

  • The money is misspent, and
  • The tortillas get cold

But it’s not just that the tortillas get cold, but they get cold while still in their original paper packaging. Can you imagine what happens? Simply put, they stick together and it’s not easy to pull them apart.

A cultural trinket around tortillas

So here’s—finally—what happens in a normal scenario:

The kid is tasked to go fetch tortillas, come back with them and once home, re-stack them in a clean kitchen towel. But this re-stacking is done one by one, so that the tortillas have an opportunity to aerate a bit of steam and so they won’t stick together when they are stored (in the fridge mostly).

So why write 1500 words to describe an everyday ritual?

This is but a small reminder that my culture and indeed every culture in the world has «sensible»—or perceptible, or tangible—aspects that are just the tip of the iceberg. Food, music, language are the easily apprehensible because they appeal to our physical senses. But lots of other aspects exist in non-tangible layers: rituals, relations, beliefs, values… and many times not even those from the culture know about them.

We all make sense of the world as we can, working with what we know and what we learn from others. Most American kids have—probably—never separated tortillas, and with good reason: it’s not exactly part of their everyday life. Most American kids have—probably—never heard of this ritual that is so common for me. I don’t mention it to condemn or blame anyone, for it’s not anyone’s fault to not know the cultural landscape of another country.

But I mention it to remember that what we see of someone else’s culture is never all of that culture. It’s ok to not know it all, for culture in general has endless details and nuances. What is not ok is to assume deep knowledge based on superficial aspects. If you never separated tortillas as a kid, that is but a small example.

And, moreover, not knowing is way more exciting than knowing it all. Not knowing is humbling, and to those brave enough to admit ignorance is also an adventure.

  1. And nahuatl.

  2. There’s a (culturally) recurring joke among Mexicans about chilaquiles and enchiladas. It goes more or less like this. A gringo asks his Mexican friend:

    –Hey, what’s an enchilada? What’s it made of?
    –Oh it’s delicious. It’s a dish made of tortillas and chicken, all with salsa, topped with a bit of cheese and cream.
    –Cool! And chilaquiles, what are those? Are they any good?
    –Also very good! They’re made of… Oh,. goddammit!

  3. Don’t get me started on the Great Debate about whether quesadillas have cheese or not. They don’t have to have it. Come at me, bro.

  4. Dough.

  5. At least, not at normal prices and circumstances. Maybe one could sell a fractional tomato priced as a whole to offset the cost of potentially discarding the rest. Maybe the seller could sell me a half tomato if they were 100% sure doing so would turn them an even greater profit in something else (see loss leader), but these considerations are not crucial to the point at hand.

  6. Or was, times have changed since I was a kid.

  7. Again, this was the 90s and 00s when arcades were still a very common thing, so much that it wasn’t uncommon to find a machine on a nearby Mom-and-Pop store.

  8. I don’t know the exact type of paper, but it’s a cheapish kind, non-waxed and of comparable thickness to brown butcher paper, except white and smoother. I’m still looking for the exact kind and will update this as soon as I get a better answer.

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