TOWERS OF TORTILLAS
As we drive along the highway, we notice piles of corn lying along the roadsides. Once the sun dries them, the workers shovel the white kernels into buckets and take them to be processed. Who would think these piles would turn into Salvadorans’ sustenance of life?
I watch the abuela (grandma) make towers of tortillas. Each tortilla is absolutely flawlessly and perfectly round; each is the exact size as the one under it and the one under it. How does she make them so uniform in size? She is using only the palms of her hands working in a rhythm – pat, pat, pat, while moving it in a circular motion. She gets plenty of practice. In El Salvador a meal is not a meal without tortillas.
They are unlike tortillas we buy in American stores. They grow thick (maybe 3/4”) from the masa rising in the container under a towel and then are kneaded on a concave-shaped stone until each is perfectly shaped by hand. Then they are baked over an open fire clay comal, or oven. They are healthy with no preservatives. The only ingredients are ground corn and water. They are served warm and delicious. Some people dip them in salt.
Salvadorans are sometimes referred to as “corn people” or el pueblode maiz. Next to water corn sustains life for them.
As I continued to watch her, I yearned to ask the abuela if I could try to make one myself. But something held me back. Thirteen little children had gathered around her while we were there, and she obviously needed every ball of dough in her basin to feed all those mouths. My screwed up or dropped ball of dough would mean one child would not receive food that day. She saw me watching intently and could have offered but didn’t, so I didn’t. When the pile was baked, she did offer us a taste. Our driver refused for the same reason I didn’t ask to try to make one. “It will be one less to feed the children,” he whispered. A couple of us split one. It is considered rude not to take something offered. It was HOT right off that fire. We could barely handle it. It was delicious.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation funded program Tortillas on the Roaster focuses on the two most important crops to Central America– maize and beans. Specifically it addresses the risks of climate change and how farmers of small areas (5 km or less) can adapt. By 2020 the temperature is expected to rise 1 degree Celsius which will severely affect the maize crop. It will exacerbate the water shortage, causing plants to suffer heat stress and increase the dry spell in July when it is crucial to maize production. Agricultural consultants are working with farmers now on preventative measures. Chances are the small farmers in the campesino communities will be the ones most vulnerable.
It is painful to imagine what will happen to the abuelas, to the families with 13 young mouths to feed, to the entire Salvadoran culture so defined by this staple crop of maiz used to make those towers of healthy tortillas if the climate is no longer able to grow maiz.