The Flavor of Tradition

by Iliana de la Vega and Isabel Torrealba

Cereals are the foundation of all great civilizations—Europe had wheat, Asia had rice and Mesoamerica flourished on corn. Indeed, corn is the backbone of Mexico’s cuisine and, as such, it holds the same importance for the country’s culture; many of the indigenous people even believed that humans were created from the crop. For many generations, corn’s versatility and vitality have shone brightly in the countless dishes and food staples that are made from it—from tortillas and tamales to moles and soups such as pozole. The food of Mexico would lose its very essence without corn.

It’s debated whether corn, or maize, originated in Tehuacán, Puebla, or in the central valleys of Oaxaca, but it’s commonly thought that it came from a type of grass called teocintle. In Mexico, we refer to the endemic types of corn as criollo (though this term denotes European ancestry when in fact, it’s completely autochthonous). These grains easily adapt to different climates, altitudes and terrains—some perform better at sea level, while others excel in the mountains or in drier conditions. It’s estimated that there are around 55 different heirloom or landrace varieties of the crop in Mexico, each with its own qualities, and used for specific purposes and to achieve different results. The colors range from white, yellow, blue and red, to pink or even purple, and the masa made from them may reflect the color or take on a gray, green or brownish hue. As with all heirloom species, the end product may not be appealing to the eye, but it will make up for it with unmatched flavor.

At our restaurant, El Naranjo, we’ve tried to find corn that tastes like the corn we grew up eating in Mexico. The right flavor, color and texture are vital for making flawless tortillas, but considering that around 90 percent of the corn found in the U.S. is genetically modified, and that it’s primarily used to feed cattle, great flavor is probably not the main priority. The American “dent” or “field” varieties of corn resulted in tortillas that were good, but not superb, and we were missing the very important influences of native terroir. It wasn’t until late last year, when we found a purveyor who carries multiple native Mexican varieties of corn (white bolita from Michoacán and blue comiteco from Oaxaca, for example), that we became truly satisfied with our product. Our tortillas went from being a vessel or accompaniment to playing a starring role.

Of course, as important as flavor is—especially in the restaurant business—our commitment to importing heirloom corn is actually part of a bigger picture. The negative consequences of genetic modification affect small, non-GMO farms the most, because it ultimately reduces their ability to compete in a saturated market. Even more at risk, though, are the ideological beliefs and ethnic identities of the very people growing authentic, native crops. Even though we fully believe in buying locally and supporting our local farmers, we also believe that a culture cannot be truly understood or preserved without the nexus to their terrain and, thus, to the things they’ve produced in those unique environments for generations. The paramount role of native corn in the culture of Mexico makes the higher price tag worth it—because we know we’re serving something that not only tastes good, but that also has a positive impact on preserving Mexico’s history, culture and society.