Sunday, August 28, 2022

My Tortilla Memoir: Mexican food and learning to make tortillas from scratch

Taco filling:
Beans, cheese, arugula, tomatoes, avocado lime crema.
Not shown: cauliflower, jackfruit, salsa, guacamole. 

On and off (mostly off) over the last decade, I've been teaching myself how to make corn tortillas from scratch.

It's pretty funny, considering that I have no tradition of Mexican food in my family;  I'm Polish-Jewish on Mom's side, English/Irish/Swiss WASP on Dad's.  None of those groups are known for their corn/beans/chile traditions.  My Polish grandmother was an excellent French cook (funny story - when I was about 14, my grandfather once said, "how come you never make me French food anymore?" and my grandmother replied, "Arthur, I only make you French food!"), and my mother is pretty great at cooking savory foods, but with zero bite (she hates spicy food).  So, spicy food and corn and beans (other than a 3-bean salad which I didn't care for) were not a big part of my childhood. 

In college, my friends introduced me to Taco Bell, which was pretty good for fast food, but nothing special. If you'd asked me then what my favorite ethnic food was, I'd probably have said Italian, because, pizza, I guess?

And then in grad school, I met my my future husband, and he loved Mexican food.  He'd grown up in SoCal and even though his family isn't any more Latin-American than mine, he lived in proximity to many Mexican restaurants. And unlike my family, his parents both tolerated some spice, and liked Mexican cuisine.  

Anyway, when we went out, he always steered us toward Mexican restaurants. Los Bandidos in Columbia, Missouri had the best spinach queso.  Blue Cactus had GREAT spinach enchiladas, but to his horror, I ordered mine in (gasp) flour tortillas, because for years I preferred flour tortillas to corn, which Chris found unfathomable. I also grew up thinking I didn't really like beans, and after tasting frijoles from his plate a few times, I realized beans were pretty good, too. I love them now.

Back then, it seemed like corn tortillas came in two varieties: fried taco shells which break as you eat them, or soft ones that broke when you tried to fold them up. I did figure out that if you wrapped the stack of corn tortillas in damp paper towels, set the stack on a plate, and placed another plate upside down over the stack, forming a covered dish, you could microwave it and that this would steam-soften them enough to eat as tacos without splitting. (Usually, anyway).

Somewhere along the way, I guess I picked up a wooden tortilla press at the grocery store - and Chris said I made them a couple of times but they were pretty thick as I recall, and I preferred the store-bought kind for their pliability. 

Then, about 8-10 years ago, I acquired a copy of Crescent Dragonwagon's The Cornbread Gospels, and there was a recipe for tortillas, and I thought what the hell, and gave it a try again using Maseca masa harina, which is a type of corn flour. You add water until it's the consistency of play dough, press it flat, and fry them on a griddle.  I knew I didn't like the wooden press which couldn't get them thin enough, so I upgraded to an inexpensive cast iron model (which I am still using) that was capable of getting them quite thin.  They turned out great, so I started making them occasionally as a treat.

Through all this, my dad was in declining health - he had an illness called multiple systems atrophy which looks a lot like Parkinson's, but is terminal, usually within 8 or so years of diagnosis.  In November of 2012, a family friend called me and said it was time to start driving home to see him more often, that it wouldn't be long; they were guessing a few months at most. So my brother and I made the 9-hour drive in November, January, and again in late February to see him as often as we could. In February, it became obvious that Dad would die soon, so we stayed for almost three weeks.  It was a painful time, but I'm grateful we could be together the way we were, to be there for each other, and for Dad as his life coasted to a stop.

On the Sunday before Dad died, I offered to make taco fillings and fresh tortillas (I'd brought my press and some masa harina along) if Mom made the taco meat. She agreed and we invited a few friends over for an impromptu dinner party. Dad sat at the table in his wheelchair, and didn't talk much, though he seemed to enjoy being surrounded by his family and friends.  Dad was under 100 pounds by then, and wasn't eating much, but as he sat at the table for this last quiet dinner party, he ate a few bites of my fresh tortillas and taco fillings, and I will always remember his eyes widening as he whispered, "oh, it's good!" That night he went to bed, and never really woke up again (He did say "hi" to the hospice nurses on Wednesday, though).  He passed on Thursday, March 6th, 2013.

It gives me a sublimely painful joy knowing that I cooked my father's last meal, that I introduced him to fresh tortillas, and that he liked them, too.

I didn't make tortillas again for more than three years. It just hurt too much. But, about a year after Dad died, I did decide that corn tortillas - even store-bought ones - really were superior - that while I liked flour for burritos, the flavor of corn was just so much better, and I will always remember Chris's delight - it was as if I'd seen the light, at last.

Then in the spring of 2019, my daughter went to Costa Rica with her HS Spanish Club, and during the homestay, she was served fresh tortillas, that were made from fresh masa, not masa harina, and they were even better than the ones I made.

So I did a little research: it turns out that masa harina isn't just finely ground corn meal; rather it is ground dried hominy. Hominy is corn that has been cooked/soaked in an alkaline solution, in a process called nixtamalization (note the the root word 'tamal;' it share the same root as tamale).

Turns out that more than 1000 years ago, people figured out that if you cooked corn with wood ash, that made the corn healthier to eat, and safe to use as a staple food.  Today we know that the process also reduces mold toxins present in the corn by almost 100%, so people were also less likely to get food poisoning, and it radically increases the bioavailability of niacin and other nutrients including calcium.

During the Columbian Exchange, corn was taken back to the old world, but without the knowledge of nixtamalization, and where corn became a staple, people wound up a niacin deficiency called pellagra that can be fatal. And one of the weirder symptoms of the disease is light sensitivity, and get this - historians theorize that pellagra may be the origin of the vampire myth.

But ... wood ash. I wonder how they figured that out?  Cool that they did, though.

Anyway, the nixtamalization changes the chemistry of the corn enough that you can form a dough with the ground masa by adding a little water to it.  Can't do that with cornmeal, no matter how finely ground it is - it falls apart.

We wanted to experience real tortillas as Kivi had (but without the expense of flying to central America).  I had to start from scratch, and acquired some pickling lime, and used some plain yellow field corn I had on hand. It's pretty easy. Add 1.5 tsp of lime to a gallon of boiling water, then drop 4 cups of corn into it.  You know the solution is properly alkaline if the base of the kernels turn from white to yellow. Simmer it for 40 mins (until the corn is soft enough to break open with your thumbnail) and the inside is about 50% chalky/uncooked and 50% translucent from cooking. Turn off the heat, and let it soak in the alkaline solution overnight.

Next day, you rinse away the pericarp (the clear shell enclosing the kernel) and grind the now-swollen corn. I did it in my food processor.  You have to add a lot of water when using that tool to get the corn to continue blending, and that makes it too wet (think hominy baby food). So then you add masa harina to it until it's dry enough to form a dough. From there the process is the same. Form it into golf-ball sized chunks, press it, and fry it on a hot, dry griddle. Wrap the cooked tortilla in a dish towel to steam.

And holy mackerel it was GREAT. Much better than when starting with masa harina flour.  And no comparison with the ones from the grocery store.  The corn aroma is stunningly strong with these tortillas. Kivi said they were just like the ones she had in Costa Rica.

I was so inspired by my results, that I ordered a variety of 5-lb bags of heirloom corn varietals from Mexico from a distributor in California (Masienda), that had been bred for hundreds of years to be great in tortillas and tamales, etc. I figured that if my nothing-special yellow dent corn turned out so well, that actual Mexican corn varieties would be even better. Right?

I also ordered a Victoria corn mill because they've been successfully used for generations, too. Seems like it should be more consistent than my food processor, and with a proper mill, masa won't come out too wet. 

And … the next two batches were failures. Tasted like cardboard and they broke when bent around taco fillings. After spending several hundred dollars on fancy corn, it was … disappointing. I went into a 3 year tortilla sulk and I haven’t made them since. Part of it was the move - I just haven't had time, and I didn't know where my press or my corn mill were and the corn sat waiting for me in an airtight pet-food vault.

Then, a week ago, Kivi (who was evidently planning really far ahead), and requested them for her birthday dinner (in December) so I decided I needed to a) get over my sulk, b) start practicing, and c) figure out a trial-and error plan until I figured out how to make them right.  I nixtamalized the corn on Friday and yesterday afternoon, thinking that maybe I didn’t grind the masa finely enough before, I decided to put it through the grinder a second time. And maybe that WAS the issue because these turned out pretty well.  Soft enough to bend without breaking, strong enough to hold together until the taco is consumed:

Strong, yet tender and pliable.  

My goal is to make masa in bulk, and freeze it in meal-size portions. So when we want tortillas, just defrost the masa, adjust the moisture levels, roll into balls, press and cook.  Aside from the defrost time, it takes no more than 15 minutes to make enough for a meal, and that's totally worth it for such good tortillas.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

1941: Hiding from Nazi Soldiers in a Labyrinth Under a French Convent

 So there is one story from my grandfather's oral testimony that is very exciting: When they were crossing from occupied to unoccupied France, they spent the night in a convent in or near Besançon. And during the night, the nuns took the men who were hiding there and took them into some sort of underground labyrinth to hide from the German soldiers. Here's how he described it:

         All right, so they took a … he gave me a false identity card, the man.  And in the train, first there was a control between Belgium and France, German control. Okay, so we passed it easily.

     And then to get unoccupied France, we – the train didn’t go – we had to go out, and be guided by a guide in the countryside. The guide was subcontracting from our guide who was supposed to get from France, from Belgium to France, from France to Spain, from Spain to Portugal, and then we go from Portugal to America, and my friends, they go from Portugal to the Congo.

    Well so we are told to spend the night in a monastery – sisters – monastery, and I don’t know what happened over there, but there were Germans were suspicious.

     So, they – I don’t know what happened to Mother and to Lillian, to Roma and to Lillian – but me, and many, many, many other men – the sisters came in a hurry and say, “Let’s walk,” – and we walk underground in some sort of a maze; labyrinth. Labyrinth, maze – is the same?  And going for hours and hours, and they told us we are walking that way, so as the Germans, who will go wherever they wanted, will never find us because we kept walking. And then after a few hours, we stopped and I slept somewhere, and in the morning we went. 

     Well, we went through; it was in Besançon.  It was in the French city of Besançon, and from there we went to … I think to the city of Artois by walking. 


It kind of reminds me of the scene in The Sound of Music where the sisters hide the von Trapp family.  It's interesting that my grandmother was separated from my grandfather that night.  I wonder if they just hid my grandmother in a cell in their dormitory, and pretended she was a nun? She had a 17-month-old daughter so maybe not. 

After trying and failing to figure out which French convent in or near Besançon has an underground labyrinth, I wrote to the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation in Besançon to see if they might know.  It took awhile, but I just heard back from them (translated via Google Translate):

Bonjour Madam,

Thank you for your message, which we read without problem. On the other hand, it is difficult for us to respond to your request because we do not know of a sufficiently large underground to correspond to your grandfather's description. At the time, there were indeed several monasteries known in the region such as Acey, Grace-Dieu, Mouthier, Baume les Dames, Luxeuil. Given that your grandfather came from Belgium and therefore from the north or north-east, it would be logical for the place you were looking for to be in Haute-Saône. I am thinking in particular of the former abbey of Bellevaux. There is also Montbenoît and Saint-Hippolyte. There would also be a long underground of several hundred meters on the side of Geneuille. We would have to know if it was a long underground, or rather a space like cellars forming a labyrinth. Did they then come out to walk uncovered to Besançon and if so for how long?

I had been looking up the various convents they mentioned, trying to figure out as best I could, whether any of them seemed like good candidates. I was able to eliminate at least one, because it was held in private ownership and wasn't in use as a convent in 1941.  Before I could respond with further questions, they wrote me again this morning, with more info and what I think is a far better candidate:

Bonjour Madam,

Following a call that I launched around me, I had the answer of a woman who did research on the undergrounds of Geneuille. I send you what she wrote to me. In addition there were also large underground passages leaving the Citadel of Besançon and probably joining the cloister just below. But was your grandfather outside or inside Besançon? That's what you should know. 

We found the entrance to the underground at the level of the former convent of the Chapter of Geneuille built in 1724 and the church of Geneuille (attested since 967 linked to the Chapter of Saint John) about 300 meters away in a straight line. No excavations having been made in this village, there is no archaeological evidence.

The nuns of the convent used it to reach the church without getting wet.

On Saturday 22/10/1870, the Prussian troops invade Geneuille: the Prussians searched in vain for the mayor of the time to shoot him but André Toussaint was able to hide in the underground. He never wanted to say where he had taken refuge and he died 6 months later with his secret.

The inhabitants of Geneuille have all heard of this underground without anyone being able to locate it.

It was during the renovation of the residential building that replaced the convent that the entrance to the underground was discovered. The first occupants lived there for 50 years. It was the investor who was alerted by his architect to the abnormal width of a cellar wall. The entrance was sealed off and the meter-wide hallway never explored.

The first garden to cross to go from the underground entrance to the church is 1 rue de l'abreuvoir. On the door, there is an engraved stone from 1727. Immediately after its portal, on the right, perpendicular to the axis of the underground, just below ground level, there is a rectangular room the size of a big car and about 1m90 high. It is entirely in stone, with no visible opening and no starting gallery.

Continuing in a straight line towards the church, you come across the Lyautey vault. Historically (until the construction of the new cemetery in 1878), there was a cemetery all around the church but only these few tombs remain, at the foot of the bell tower.

Not far in Chaudefontaine, there was archaeological research in 1996 which led to the discovery of a Roman road considered important because it could come from Lugdunum (Lyon), touching Vesontio (Besançon) crossing the countryside in front of In Marcaleo (Marchaux in 967) to very probably reach Epomanduodurum (Mandeure) via Rubeomonte (Rougemont) and the site of Loposagio (Luxiol).

 The Via Francigena passes through Geneuille.

Digging underground in waterlogged land is technically difficult to say the least. I don't believe that the undergrounds were dug but that there were corridors built which were buried to hide them, on the principle of what was done at the citadel.

So, if I'm reading this correctly, there are two possible locations, one within the city of Besançon, connecting the ancient Citadel of Besançon, to a nearby cloister (maybe St. Jean's Cathedral?). 

Citadelle de Besançon

And the other possibility for the convent that hid my grandfather in their underground tunnels was Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille.  Geneuille is about 14 km north of Besançon, and is logically on the way from Brussels to Besançon. It had secret tunnels that everyone in Geneuille knew existed (like, for centuries), but no one ever found, until an entrance was recently discovered.)

 Église de la Nativité-de-Notre-Dame de Geneuille

If you like maps. This one shows the Geneuille church at the far north end, and the Besançon Citadel on the south. I had initially thought they were connected by long tunnels, but upon re-reading, I now think they are unrelated. Just two separate locations that had tunnels, one inside Besançon, one outside of it.

I'm leading toward the Geneuille location, as there was a strong German presence in Besançon particularly in/around the Citadel during the war, and it seems foolhardy to have stopped there.