Luis pointed me towards a fascinating piece over at Edible Geography called Fueling Mexico City: A Grain Revolution. Along with the fascinating bits of history and culture from a part of the world I’m less familiar with, some parts rang true and very close to home. The gist of the article is that in Mexico, corn is the main staple and, until very recently, it took a lot of time to prepare (1 person in 5 dedicated to making tortillas all day, every day).
While this may sound far removed from American life, recent changes parallel food trends here. In the past twenty years, changes in technology have led to mass produced tortillas. They don’t taste as good, but practically everyone buys them. Why? Because it means that the woman of the house, or her daughter, does not have to spend all day, every day, making tortillas. Families eagerly make the exchange: quality of food for time with family or the money that time can bring. This very deliberate trade off has dramatically increased the middle class in Mexico City.
Luis asked my opinion on the piece and what came out was that the choice is not surprising. I think pretty much everyone would take the option of lower quality food if they could have additional time to earn money, get an education or spend it with family. This is in fact the choice we see being made in our country by people in low income communities every day. Fast food prevails over the home-cooked meal. When time spent cooking is time not spent earning money to pay for rent or college, and when fast food is cheap and plentiful, the choice is not really a choice at all.
If we actually want to help our country eat better, reduce rates of diabetes and obesity, and continue building our middle class, we need to make the cheap and quick food also quality food. This requires tackling our food system from at least two directions: removing subsidies for corn and soy which are made into processed foods that make us ill; and subsidizing whole fruits, vegetables and grains that are good to eat (as well as putting out information on quick and tasty ways to cook these foods, since many young adults don’t know what to do with raw ingredients when faced with them – regardless of economic status).
We cannot continue to allow the quality of the food we eat to be an indicator of social status. Everyone deserves to eat good food, not just people who have two hours to spend making dinner, like I did last night. And if we’re going to change this, we have to acknowledge that time has become a commodity just as much as corn, and we need to find ways to make Slow Food available to those with less time to spend on it.
The edible geography article is interesting, but it lumps (or maybe I misread it as lumping; I admit to having skimmed it) tortilla production into two groups, hand- and machine-made.
This isn’t quite right. There are hand-made tortillas that are definitely the best tasting, but also the most labor-intensive. There are mass produced machine-made tortillas that come in sealed plastic bags, are relatively expensive, and taste terrible. Finally, there are machine-made tortillas available for purchase fresh out of the machine. These are wrapped in paper, and are also distributed, so sometimes they’re not so fresh, but still better than the ones that come sealed.
These last aren’t as good as handmade ones, but they’re inexpensive and still smell and taste delicious. I think they’re a more than reasonable compromise for most people most of the time–at least if you’re able to pick them up during typical tortillería opening hours.
What I long for is a consumer level tortilla machine: fill it up with dough, and then whenever you want a tortilla, hit a button, wait 30 seconds, and enjoy.
Thanks Food in Life for linking to the Edible Geography article about my talk on tortillas in Mexico City.
And thanks for comment, Michael. Actually very few corn tortillas in Mexico City come in those sealed plastic bags. That’s more typical of the US and yes they taste appalling.
How good the tortilleria ones are depends on a variety of factors. Whether the operator uses nixtamal or masa harina, how good the machine is, etc etc.
I don’t think the consumer tortilla machine is far off.