I’ve been sitting on a lot of panels lately. As in life, sometimes I’m in the driver’s seat (as moderator); other times, I’m the passenger (or panelist). On a recent turn as the latter at the New Latin Wave festival in Brooklyn, an audience member asked me a question about tortillas. I’m not Mexican, so immediately I worried that I’d mess up in my reply. This question, from the CEO of Latina brand Trenza, wasn’t about a recipe, though; it was about tradition and corporatization. It was about whether the proliferation and ease of store-bought tortillas would see generations losing their connections to their culture, their roots. Whether one day no one in a household would know how to form the masa from scratch, roll out the dough, and heat it to fresh perfection, because the tortillas, the foundation of many meals, would always come ready-made, wrapped in plastic.
“The commercialism of food removes us from our culture,” I told her, and she went home to make that into an inspirational quote meme on Instagram. Because mass-produced food has become more convenient than cooking at home, and because many people work two or three jobs, those with the time to prepare food from scratch are wealthy. That does not mean, though, that fresh tortillas, sourdough loaves, or homegrown herbs don’t belong to everyone.
Tortillas provide a pretty perfect look at how forces beyond a broad population’s control can affect our cuisines deeply. In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, Alyshia Gálvez writes about the ways in which the trade agreement that went into effect in 1994 has altered the economic and culinary power structures in Mexico–and done so in a way that has led to more diet-based diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease. Milpa, the traditional, self-sustaining crop-growing system for cultivating corn, beans, and squash was displaced by industrial agriculture and processed foods. Gálvez also chronicles how, as established foodways have been transformed within Mexico, the traditional diet has become fashionable on a global scale for luxury consumers.
“Milpa-based cuisine requires access to ingredients, labor, and rhythms of life and mealtimes that are not as feasible today,” Gálvez writes, of cooking based on corn and vegetables. She continues:
For some, that is a story of liberation, since milpa-based food systems historically depend on rural household and labor arrangements that were dependent on relentless female domestic labor, and are not easily compatible with formal labor force participation. Those who no longer work the land or spend hours a day grinding corn and shaping masa into tortillas may or may not desire to go back to that kind of lifestyle, but I wish to point out that the transition away from this way of eating has costs, many of which are not widely acknowledged or well known.
Samin Nosrat’s new Netflix show, Salt Fat Acid Heat, based on her best-selling cookbook of the same name, shows this milpa-based lifestyle in the “Acid” episode, shot in Mexico’s Yucatán. “Tortilla especialista” Doña Asaria brings her nixtamalized corn, which has been soaked in mineral lime and water, to a community mill for grinding. She makes 200 to 250 tortillas per day, by hand. They’re tastier than a machine might make, the women on camera tell Nosrat, because a machine squeezes out too much oil.
Open and inquisitive, Nosrat has been praised for her approach to various global cuisines in the show. In Italy (the “Fat” episode) and Mexico, she speaks the local language. In Japan, exploring “Salt,” you sense how lucky she knows herself to be as she tastes a two-year-old red miso. She’s giggly, where Anthony Bourdain might have been cerebral, and it never diminishes the seriousness of the project. In all the countries she visits, she prioritizes the work of women such as Doña Asaria, who are warm, wise, and open. Nosrat understands them as masters of craft, and as matriarchs and guardians of tradition.
She is, in all ways, the opposite of how Gálvez portrays the renowned “bro” chefs, such as René Redzepi, who have gone to Mexico in search of authenticity, wielding what the book characterizes as the language of conquest.
Nosrat uses what Gálvez calls “narrative capital” not to romanticize but to document, to enjoy, and to recall her own traditions as an Iranian woman who grew up in the United States. Those who seek to profit off of Mexican cuisine often come in with the idea that they can do a better job telling the food’s story than can those to whom it belongs. “Separated from context, specific cooking methods, styles, and ingredients are “‘up for grabs’ for whoever “‘tells the best story,'” Gálvez writes, “with those from whom these traditions have been taken, the story goes, having insufficiently preserved or appreciated them.”
She goes on to argue that, while it may have occurred to chefs such as Redzepi to up the market value of a tortilla, the narrative capital denied to Mexicans themselves has not allowed them to profit in the same way. The Tulum pop-up of Noma, Redzepi’s pricey and precious Copenhagen restaurant, charged $600 for one meal in an area that, Gálvez says, has seen a post-NAFTA restructuring of diets toward manufactured foods high in calories and low in micronutrients, the trace vitamins and minerals necessary for immune health and other bodily functions.
“For locals, it does not matter if they work in or around ecotourism or mass-market commercial tourism; both have spelled a restructuring of their region and their lifestyles,” she writes. “Greater market dependency has meant a decline in dietary diversity and nutritional status in low-income communities. While Redzepi bounces in a jeep seeking culinary inspiration in the jungle, residents of the region have been experiencing an almost complete transformation of their food supply.”
Though Mexico is unique because of the combination of NAFTA’s effects and an influx of famous chefs attempting to “elevate” the native cuisine, similar issues plague the United States. For example, in New York’s Albany County, more than 40,000 people live under what some activists and researchers term “food apartheid,” without access to fresh foods despite the agricultural potential of the land on which they live. The majority of them are people of color. As cookbook author Julia Turshen wrote for HuffPost in May, 2018, the whiteness of the U.S. food movement has undermined its integrity and ability to truly gain a foothold beyond the upper-middle class. When the most visible advocates do not fully acknowledge the reality of farmworkers’ lives and food insecurity, a nutritious, locally sourced diet looks like privilege served in a $250 egg spoon. The narrative capital of folks like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan has made baking bread look like luxury rather than the frugal fulfillment of a basic need.
That’s why Nosrat’s project has been heralded not simply as accessible and fun but as a Marxist vision of food. In Italy, Mexico, Japan, and California, Salt Fat Acid Heat connects what we eat to the land and to the hands that make it–which could be yours, if you like. Part travelogue and part cooking show, it reminds the viewer that salt comes from somewhere, that fat is both delicious and necessary, that tortillas aren’t always picked up from the store. If you watch it while reading Gálvez’s book, an even fuller picture of the stakes emerges. There’s nothing bougie about making food from scratch, the show insists and the book reminds us. Cooking with fresh food is your birthright, even if–in more places than not–time and ingredients must be fought for.
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