Recently, we had a guest named Jorge Gaviria, who is a corn tortilla evangelist. Francis Lam talked with him about corn tortillas, and it got us more excited about corn tortillas than we'd ever felt before. Since then, we realized that flour tortillas have lost a lot of love. So, we wanted to give them equal time in the Great Tortilla Debate. Enter writer and taco historian Gustavo Arellano, who told Francis that we should be giving flour tortillas a second look - and taste.
Francis Lam: You used to write a column called 'Ask a Mexican', so now I want to ask a Mexican: How do most Mexicans feel about flour tortillas?
Gustavo Arellano: In Mexico, most Mexicans don't even have an opinion about flour tortillas because they're historically situated in The Borderlands of Northern Mexico – right on the U.S./Mexico border. As a result, historically, Northern Mexico has always been considered a land apart - la tierra de los salvajes or ‘the land of the savages.’ That's in Mexico. Then, of course, in the United States, the great Mexican food evangelists see flour tortillas as a gabacho or a white appropriation of Mexican food, which is totally not the case.
Photo Courtesy: Gustavo Arellano
FL: Why is it not the case? Because when I think of flour tortillas, I think of, frankly, Taco Bell and this very commodified version of Mexican food. But, it's not exactly that.
GA: No, because you have never had a good flour tortilla in your life. That's why you think that. Most people who think of flour tortillas as commodified, you're right. I wouldn't even say Taco Bell anymore. I would say most people who know flour tortillas now know the Chipotle model, which is mass produced. And it's funny because Chipotle has historically always liked to promote their organic, fair trade, humanely raised ingredients – they sure as hell don't do that with flour tortillas.
What I would tell those people, first of all, is that flour tortillas are Mexican. They are eaten in Northern Mexico which, last I checked, was a part of Mexico. They are eaten on The Borderlands, which 150 years ago was still Mexico. And, more importantly, to this day they're eaten by millions of Mexican-Americans in the United States all with their own unique traditions. Anyone who hates on flour tortillas, I would say they have not eaten a good flour tortilla. But, this is why there are people like me and you to tell people where the good stuff is.
FL: It's funny you say that because I do feel like I've had a good flour tortilla. I don't know if objectively in the universe of good flour tortillas where it would stack up. But the first restaurant that made me truly love Mexican food - it was my first exposure to Mexican food that wasn't something like a Taco Bell - was a place call La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I remember the tortillas were chewy and they had so much texture and character. I'd ask why they were good and the people said, “It's because we make them ourselves by hand. They're not from a machine.” But every time I'd ask for them, they would look at me with a sad look of disappointment in their eyes, because they really wanted me to ask for the corn tortillas. Let's talk about the universe of good flour tortillas. You say they're parts of different kinds of Mexican tradition. Are they regional? Are there different styles?
GA: Absolutely. The taxonomy that I use isn't Mexico itself, because obviously to get those tortillas you're going to have to go down to Mexico. But here in the United States you could easily get them if you follow this manter. In Texas, the style of tortilla that you're talking about is the classic Tex-Mex tortilla. It’s thick, chewy, and almost like a biscuit because the Texans – those los texanos – actually use baking powder in it. It’s a tradition. And the tell-tale sign is when they start puffing up on the comal, on the griddle. They get big. Sometimes they can get as big as a roti, like that Indian flatbread as well.
FL: Oh, wow.
GA: Then you move over to New Mexico. New Mexico tends to be a little bit forgotten in the great flour tortilla wars between Texas and Arizona. I like New Mexico's style of flour tortillas because they're less thick than the Texas type, but they're also wheatier. In New Mexico, when they get their flour tortillas, they're using the wheat from New Mexico. So, in that sense it's very regional. But for me and a lot of people, the king of the flour tortilla is going be the Sonoran-style flour tortilla. Even in Arizona, what people would call Arizona-Mexican cuisine, back there they call it just Sonoran cuisine. This is where you get flour tortillas that are literally as thin as a napkin. They’re translucent, pliable, buttery and amazing. They could be as small as your hand or as big as a forearm. The famous tortillas of Sonora that are the super big ones are called sobaqueras. Colloquially they're called sobaqueras, which basically means arm-pitters, because they're as big as putting it from your hand all the way to your armpit.
FL: That's so poetic.
GA: [laughs] That's the colloquial name.
FL: That's huge! I don't even know how much food you would put in that tortilla.
I'm curious about the history of the flour tortilla. We recently talked to two chefs who were looking into the Moorish influence on Mexican food. I think primarily through the fact that the Moors conquered Spain and ruled Spain for 800 years right before Spain came to the new world. So, there's going to be a lot of Moorish influence in that Spanish culture that came to the new world. And this may be goofy – and I'm probably totally wrong – but is it possible there's a link between pita or Moorish flatbreads and the flour tortilla?
GA: There has to be - from the Leventine. And, depending on the decade, sometimes people say it's a Jewish influence. Sometimes people say it's a Moorish influence. The reality is no one really knows how flour tortillas got started in Mexico except that it was done, again, up in Northern Mexico. But here's the key about Northern Mexico. You have to imagine we're talking about the 1500s, the 1600s, where the country of Mexico is still being conquered by the Spaniards. The Spaniards are sending people off to basically subjugate tribes. A lot of the people who wanted to go to the most northern outreaches – we're talking about New Mexico, Chihuahua and all that – these are people that in Spain were already quote, unquote “mongrels.” They were undesirables. So, you're getting a lot of people who are Jews – hidden Jews, mind you, because we're still in the Inquisition – and you're also going to get Muslims as well, the Moros. They're going up there and they're going to use whatever they can to be able to recreate not just the foods of the quote, unquote “Spaniards,” but also their native cuisine.
I wouldn't even say the tortilla is like a pita. I would call it almost more like a lavash, like a Persian flatbread. I remember the first time I went to a Persian restaurant. Here I have this rice pilaf and fesenjoon, the great walnut stew that I personally think looks like a mole. Here I'm expecting this pita bread. Nope! They give me big squares of lavash. And I'm thinking to myself, “Are they Mexican or something? Because this looks exactly like a flour tortilla.”
FL: Oh, that's fascinating. The world is so big, but sometimes it's so small.
GA: I love it!
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.