Can't the flour tortilla get a little respect?
By Meg Favreau
I don’t know the life expectancy of a food product like the flour tortilla. What I do know is that, in the early 2000s, that poor bugger had a midlife crisis. Like an '80s pop star who doesn't realize a new generation of fans only like him ironically, the flour tortilla became famous again, but not on his own merits. No, the poor tortilla wasn't loved for his flavor or spunk. Rather, fueled by the Atkins craze, he was loved for being a low-carb alternative to bread. He was a pawn, a rube, a sandwich-delivery device. And that poor, naive tortilla loved it. He even agreed to change his name for the Atkins people: abandoning the traditional moniker and letting himself be known simply as "wrap.” It's not quite the same thing as buying a Corvette and growing a ponytail at 50, but I dare say it's close.
Then again, the flour tortilla has always been fighting for its identity. Its brother, the corn tortilla, gets all the glory. The corn tortilla is, first of all, older than the flour version — wheat didn't even show up in Mexican cuisine until the Spanish brought it over in the 16th century. The corn tortilla is healthier than the flour tortilla too, because the flour tortilla requires a fat-like lard or shortening to hold it together. Hell, some people even claim that the corn tortilla is the only traditional tortilla, and that our floured friend is nothing but an American impostor. In a 1998 edition of the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine, authors Sheryl Julian and Julie Rosenfeld said that the flour tortilla is "flexible enough, figuratively speaking, to stray far from authentic Mexican cuisine."
But the flour tortilla is a Mexican invention. It has a strong tradition in northern Mexico, especially in the state of Sonora. This also helps explain why the flour tortilla is so firmly entrenched in Mexican-American cuisine: Part of Sonora became part of America in the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.
These days, many food-loving fans of the flour tortilla consider it to be a guilty pleasure. "I should prefer corn tortillas over flour — they have more depth of flavor and are a better complement to most Tex-Mex ingredients," says Lisa in an entry on her Homesick Texan blog. "But...I still always opt for flour over corn.” It's a sentiment echoed by chef Traci Des Jardins in a 2005 New York Times article by Kim Severson. "Although she now prefers the flavor and texture of corn tortillas," Severson writes of Des Jardins, "the flour version is her soul food."
It's easy to understand why — warm and pliable, fresh flour tortillas are like a food blanket, a comfortable way to surround other ingredients and make them feel safe. And at least to me, that's the difference between calling the thing a "tortilla" and a "wrap" — a wrap is a cold, impersonal stand-in for bread. A tortilla is a warm and welcoming guy, ready with a hug.
So tortilla, if you're reading this, remember: Mid-life crisis or not, I love you just the way you've always been. • 28 August 2009
| Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas, adapted from Claudia on allrecipes.com
I tried a few different tortilla recipes before hitting on this one on the group recipe-sharing Web site All Recipes. The woman who posted it, Claudia, says she "learned from watching my Mom in Mexico.” I like that it includes whole grains and doesn't have too much fat.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Mix together the flours and salt, then cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles crumbs. Add the water and knead until everything sticks together — don't over-knead. Separate the dough into 10 balls and let rest, covered, on a greased cookie sheet for at least an hour.
Heat a griddle or frying pan on medium-high heat. On a lightly floured surface, roll the balls to desired thickness. One by one, cook the tortillas on each side — they're ready to flip when they start to bubble. This should go fairly quickly.
Wrap any tortillas you don't use immediately and store them in the refrigerator or freezer; microwave to warm before eating.
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Philadelphia. She blogs at ihearyoulikestories.com.
Recipe photo by Meg Favreau.