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The Tortilla Cycle

by Rebecca Allen

Published in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Rosa can, and does, make tortillas in the dark. The ancient generator needs a new belt and a prayer and can’t always be counted on to power the light bulbs of Unión Victoria, the Guatemalan village where I live with Rosa and her two young daughters. Rosa’s husband works in Florida. In his absence Rosa carries on, feeding her pigs, hauling firewood, planting crops, and making three meals a day. In the midst of all this, she insisted on teaching me to make tortillas.

Guatemalan corn tortillas bear almost no resemblance to the machine-made flour variety sold in U.S. grocery stores. Each tortilla requires a careful process of patting and turning the dough by hand into a pliable disc approximately three inches in diameter. When this is done to satisfaction—no thick center, no cracked edges—Rosa places the dough on a comal, a hot clay griddle balanced on three stones above a wood fire. After thirty seconds or so, she flips the tortilla by pressing her calloused fingers into the dough until they stick, allowing for a quick inversion. The comal fills quickly as Rosa scoops another egg-sized ball of dough from the grinding stone with a practiced swipe and begins to slap it flat between her palms. She’s fast: the average Guatemalan woman prepares 170 tortillas each day. And she’s a patient teacher. After four months of minor burns, singed arm hairs, and irregular blobs suitable only for the pigs, I could produce—albeit slowly—a consistently circular and even stack of steaming tortillas.

Making the tortillas is only one in a cyclical series of tasks. Rosa plants the corn. She harvests and dries the cobs, tying the husks into pairs to dangle like ballet slippers under the tin roof blackened by years of smoke. Every afternoon, she shells corn into a pot of boiling water where it cooks for over an hour until it is soft enough to be ground into dough, or masa. The electric mill down the road grinds the corn in thirty seconds; otherwise, when the generator fails, Rosa bends over the grinding stone, passing over and over the kernels until she’s satisfied with the consistency. Finally, she begins to pat out the tortillas that give her strength to plant more corn for more tortillas.

At first, my body rebelled against facing yet another meal of beans and tortillas, or greens and tortillas, or anything at all and tortillas. Little distinguishes breakfast from lunch and lunch from dinner besides the position of the sun. But our simple meals have quietly grown on me. I imitate Rosa as we eat with our hands, breaking off pieces of steaming tortilla to scoop the food from our bowls to our mouths.

Here, corn is the stuff of life. According to the K’iche’ Maya creation legend, the gods formed human beings of masa. Now, to strengthen their bodies and show respect for the gods, the people must plant, tend, harvest, dry, grind, and eat their sacred plant. In K’iche’, wa, the word for “tortilla,” also means “food.” To invite a guest to the table, the host says, “Let us eat our tortillas.” The other food is inconsequential.

Yet much to the astonishment (and ultimate disbelief) of my Mayan friends, the vast majority of U.S. Americans don’t eat corn tortillas, much less at every meal. Then just what do we eat, they want to know. I try to explain that we combine several different types of food for the same meal, assign certain foods to specific meals, and rarely eat the same food twice in one day. Despite my elaborate verbal platters, they remain puzzled. “But aren’t you hungry?”

As we eat together, Rosa occasionally asks me what I’ll do when I return to the United States. Initially, I failed to understand her. “Where will I live? Or work?”

A giggle escaped her. “No, for your tortillas,” she reminded me gently as I took one from her outstretched hand. “You’ll miss them.”

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