Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Corn, Masa and a Passion for Some Damn Fine Tortillas






It’s our history—our most famous indigenous food—corn. Way before the Spanish hit the scene, before the pig furrowed the ground in the Americas, corn was the thing. She’s one of the triplets of the “three sisters”, along with beans and squash, the native Americans (including those who were living in what is now known as Mexico) heralded these three queens of sustenance by cultivating, caring for, and showing great respect for with their innovative cooking. It’s a wondrous vegetable that can be sweet and fresh, dried for meal, fed to our livestock, and distilled for our drink.

It makes sense that the modern American South and Mexico would feel the influence of each other. Food is an easy view into how we enjoy the same kinds of tastes. We both utilize corn meal cooked in various forms. Could be cornbread or a corn tortilla cooked in cast iron or perhaps spooned in and wrapped up in husks for tamales. Southerners love spicy food and Mexicans helped teach us to grow and utilize peppers. We like our meats cooked low and slow—barbacoa in Mexico and Bar-B-Q in the states. We celebrate the flavors of Mexico directly and indirectly and Mexico plays a major part in our “global South.”

Recently, at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s symposium held annually in Oxford, Mississippi, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q helped to celebrate this beautiful mix of culinary creativity by stuffing upwards of 800 handmade tortillas with their slow-cooked, pulled pork (carnitas), goat (cabra) and beef toungue (lengua). But Chef Drew Robinson didn’t just buy a giant pack of corn tortillas and source generic meat and vegetables. He sourced products from Southern farms and can trace the products to the land they were grown on. Corn was actually soaked, milled and forced into “masa” (Spanish for “dough”) in Oxford by a team of chefs, cooks and even office staff from Jim ‘N Nick’s.

The tortillas and the slow cooked meats took two full days of cooking. Led by Jim ‘N Nick’s tortilla experts, Raquel Rivera Bjora, Claudia Rivera and Jose Garcia, the cooks ground the corn into masa, portioned out and shaped dough balls by hand that would eventually be pressed in a manual tortilla press and cooked on Lodge cast iron griddles (made in Chattanooga, TN), set over flames. Each tortilla was stuffed with the meats, topped off with scratch made tomato salsa, salsa arbol, and salsa verde, and served with organic pickled vegetables and roasted corn on the side. The flavors were rich and intense yet even with all of the spices, unctuous meats and bright vegetables inside the tortillas, the true flavor, coaxed respectfully from each kernel, shone through and paid due homage to corn.

Oh, and if you missed the hand-made tortillas and tacos at the SFA symposium, keep an eye out for a new taqueria, imagined by the Jim ‘N Nick’s folks, called “Little Donkey” to open in 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama.

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