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A Cultural History

Paula E. Morton

Publication Year: 2014

“The ordinary tortilla was an extraordinary bond between the human and divine. . . . From birthdays to religious ceremonies, the people of Mesoamerica commemorated important events with tortillas. One Maya tribe even buried their dead with tortillas so that the dogs eaten as dinner during life would not bite the deceased in revenge.”—from Tortillas: A Cultural History

For centuries tortillas have remained a staple of the Mexican diet, but the rich significance of this unleavened flatbread stretches far beyond food. Today the tortilla crosses cultures and borders as part of an international network of people, customs, and culinary traditions.

In this entertaining and informative account Paula E. Morton surveys the history of the tortilla from its roots in ancient Mesoamerica to the cross-cultural global tortilla. Morton tells the story of tortillas and the people who make and eat them—from the Mexican woman rolling the mano over the metate to grind corn, to the enormous wheat tortillas made in northern Mexico, to twenty-first-century elaborations like the stuffed burrito. This study—the first to extensively present the tortilla’s history, symbolism, and impact—shows how the tortilla has changed our understanding of home cooking, industrialized food, healthy cuisine, and the people who live across borders.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

In the late 1990s I worked one day as a temp employee in an immigrant neighborhood tortillería, bordered to the south by the village of Anapra, Mexico; to the east, El Paso, Texas. I moved to New Mexico from a farm in Pennsylvania, and the most I knew about tortillas is that they tasted good in Pennsylvania and best at the borderlands, handmade and warm off the griddle. But this is not a book about my one-day-for-cheap-pay in a tortilla-making ...

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Prologue • The Humble Tortilla

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pp. xiii-xxiv

The history of the tortilla is a tale of the powerful intersections of people, customs, and culinary traditions that continues to lift generations and cultures. Two years ago I interviewed Eva Ybarra at her home in Anthony, New Mexico, halfway between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. Trying to avoid the stifling heat of the day by working in the shadow of her mobile home, Eva patted round tortillas from corn dough and flipped...

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1 • The Incomparable Tortilla

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pp. 1-20

Deep in the highlands of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico, a contemporary Zinacantecos shaman kneels before three wooden crosses decorated with pine tree tops and bunches of red geraniums. As he prays to his ancestral Maya gods who reside inside the volcanic mountains, the shaman plants white wax candles in the earth before the shrine, waves copal incense over the...

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2 • The Life-Giving Tortilla

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pp. 21-36

Within the walled Sacred Precinct of Templo Mayor in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, the children tore a dried-out tortilla in half and, with a piece of the sharp end, played the game of dying on the altar. So went the pretend human sacrifice. Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary in sixteenth-century New Spain, described the tortilla ritual played...

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3 • The Stubborn Tortilla

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pp. 37-54

The tortilla journeyed through Mesoamerica as the star and then the bit player of New Spain. On April 22, 1519, eleven Spanish brigantines carrying over five hundred soldiers, horses, dogs, a crew of sailors, European matchlock guns, and fourteen cannons sailed into the port of Veracruz, Mexico. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés began his conquest of...

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4 • El Norte

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pp. 55-70

In July 1542, it was hot and dusty in the Pueblo country of northern New Mexico. By the time the Spanish exploratory expedition reached Háwikuh, the southernmost of the Zuni pueblos, conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, dressed to conquer in a gilded suit of full armor and metal helmet adorned with plumes, was exhausted and hungry. He was happy for the substance of “Indian tortillas.”...

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5 • The Frontier Tortilla

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pp. 71-88

In the 1500s wayward groups of free-range Corriente cattle, a hardy breed of the original Spanish cattle brought to the New World able to withstand the ocean crossing and adapt to the Americas, wandered north from the haciendas in Central Mexico to El Paso del Norte. The cattle drank from the Rio Grande and spread through the upper and lower river valleys, stretching...

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6 • The Industrial Tortilla

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pp. 89-106

Before dawn, Anita Hernández Lucas and her mother rose and went their separate ways to different cornmills to begin work by 3:30 in the morning. Hernández’s story began in 1916 when she was born in Mexico City. Her father fought during the Mexican Revolution and her mother followed him as a soldadera from battlefield to battlefield where he died, she told historian ...

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7 • The Immigrant Tortilla

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pp. 107-128

In 1994 the single strand of cable marking the international border between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, was replaced with an eighteen-foot barrier. Called Operation Gatekeeper, the new border strategy by the United States began with the construction of fourteen miles of steel fence stretching from the inland desert to the beach. When construction workers reached the Pacific Ocean they kept going and sunk steel pillars into the sand three hundred feet into the ocean surf....


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pp. 129-136


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pp. 137-140

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 141-154


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pp. 155-157

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826352156
E-ISBN-10: 0826352154
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826352149

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2014