In Praise of the Tortilla

by Wayne Lundberg 

It has taken over 6,000 years for this little bit of magic to evolve. From nomads curious about this little itty-bitty grain growing on a small-finer sized cob, to a digestible and delicious tortilla, and the stuff to put on it.


Anthropologists have traced the beginning of maize from this incredibly small piece of nature through the ages. Not only did the early nomads 'invent or discover' hybridization, they also 'accidentally' discovered/invented the key process that changes maize into digestible food for human beings.


But let me start with the ultimate high-energy pick-me-up for pennies and in less than a minute, which I used to lure you into this piece.


A few minutes ago, around 2:00, working on a robotics project, I suddenly felt the need for a recharge. My options were to take a slug of Tequila, open a can of Dos Equis, or do what any reasonable working Mexican will do at this time of day. Heat a tortilla, ladle it with salsa and a spoonful of beans, and eat it. Maybe three... since they are low cal and low fat and everything good.


A tortilla is a miracle from nature and man. Six to ten thousand years ago as native Amerindians crisscrossed the continent as hunter-gatherers, they zeroed in on a few plants. Beans, potatoes, squash, chile and that little itty bitty thing that kept getting bigger every time they camped in the same place each year. One thing led to another and the women of the tribes learned that if they took the largest kernel from the cob and planted it near the earthen toilets the tribe used, it would grow more kernels on ever larger cobs. Then, one day, somebody came by after a forest fire and discovered the maize blackened on the outside husk was softened in the inside and tasted pretty good. The rest is history.... almost. But not quite.


Maize by itself is great food for animals, but not for humans.


Somewhere before 4,000 BC earthen pots were evolving, and somebody put some kernels of maize to boil. Without really knowing it, during the night some of the ashes from the fire mixed with the boiling water and the birth of nixtamal was at hand. With a touch of lye or lime the maize becomes digestible to the human body. So now you have the 'corn' of the Americas. That dry bean that will keep the tribes going through winters when everybody hibernates, including the animals.


So today I have machine made tortillas from prime maize in my refrigerator that I can take out at will, heat at will and eat at will. But that is not real energy as I promised in the heading of this story. I promised the ultimate high-energy bite.


Enter the chile. Chiles grow in nature and in some places they are considered a weed, an infestation, unwelcome because they are so hearty. But we know better. All those thousands of years ago the natives gathered chiles of all kinds and knew the potency they gave for that extra exertion needed to put the final killing blow to the mastodon, the big elephants that roamed the Americas... and into the javelin, and wild pig and all other animals they hunted. They did not know why, and few people today know why, but the chile is that ultimate dose of power needed for heavy work as well as for just simply enjoying the heat.


South American natives chewed cocoa leaves as they built the incredible Matsu Pichus and the likes. Mexican travelers chewed on chiles to get the same, or greater energy when needed. To this day!


Few people really understand this, but many do. So if you are among the ones who know this, please add your thoughts and experiences. Eating a chile tricks the human body into believing the mouth is on fire. If the body is suffering heat burns, or anything that hurts, the brain sends a signal to a little gland at the base of our skull that squirts out a shot of endorphin. Morphine. It is self induced therefore non addictive. (Yeah, sure, ask any marathon runner or jogger if their second wind is not addictive!). But for the most part, this shot of self induced pain killer is not harmful, but it does trigger of the illusion that we are indestructible, strong as horses, and can do anything longer than anybody else. This closes this little bit of trivia on corn tortillas and chile tacos.


Heat a tortilla, sprinkle it with Cayenne or any good chile, roll it up, and
you have yourself a healthy, wholesome afternoon or morning pick-me-up for pennies.

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