Why Americans Are Quitting Their Day Jobs To Make Craft Corn Tortillas

This story is from New Worlder’s partnership with Heated from Medium x Mark Bittman, a site that showcases the links between food and just about everything else: agriculture, politics, history, and labor; culture and cooking; identity, family, and love.

In 2018, Ray German, a working chef in Hawaii, questioned the kind of food he wanted to cook. Although his parents were born in Jalisco, Mexico, it nagged at him that he didn’t know more about Mexican food. So the San Diego-born German, who had only traveled to Mexico once before, decided to take a sabbatical in Oaxaca.

He offered to work for free at any restaurant that would have him and secured a place at Casa Oaxaca, run by acclaimed chef Alejandro Ruiz, in Downtown Oaxaca City. One day, as he watched a woman making tortillas, something clicked.

“She was talking about it, and this light came out of this woman,” said German, 36. “It kind of all made sense how everything works in life — it all revolves around corn. I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing; this is what Hawaii is missing.’”

In May 2019, he and partner Dalton Harrington launched Masa, Hawaii’s Tortillería, a business dedicated to making stone-ground corn tortillas sourced from landrace Mexican corn. Landrace corn, unlike the GMO variety, are naturally diverse, local strains grown using seeds hand-selected by families over generations.

While the locals have embraced Masa — their tortillas, aguas frescas, and salsas often sell out at the Kaka’ako Farmers Market in Honolulu — German hasn’t yet quit his day job as a restaurant chef. But his dream is now interwoven with tortillas, which he hopes to make the way his ancestors might have made them.

He’s not the only one diving into this niche industry. Across the United States, new tortillerías boasting stone-ground dough and sustainably sourced corn are cropping up in places not typically known for their Mexican identity or culture — small-town Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; Portland; Vermont; Wisconsin. New ones seem to be opening all the time, as shown by the popularity of Instagram hashtags like #nixtamal, which highlight volcanic rock grinding stones and multicolored dried corn kernels.

Tortillerías in the United States have been around since at least the 1920s, set up in Mexican American neighborhoods by immigrants who wanted a taste of home. The clients are, overwhelmingly, restaurants and hotels. Many immigrants are priced out from buying — because of the high cost of non-commodity corn and labor, the craft tortillas tend to run $4 to $5 for a package of 10 to 12, compared to a $2 or $3 for a package of 30 corn tortillas at the supermarket. The latter are made with cheaper, nixtamalized corn flour with less flavor.

For some in this new generation of tortilleros, the business is a way to connect to a piece of Mexican culture lost to assimilation, or to honor family roots. All of the half-dozen business owners I spoke with say they’re united by one thing — offering an option beyond the flat, papery, mass-produced American corn tortilla, and educating the public that they should demand better.

Rick Ortega studied music engineering after high school, but when his childhood friend Omar Ahmed Hernandez decided to continue his family’s tortilla business in 2014 — rejiggering the model to focus on organic corn — Ortega scrapped what he was doing and went all in. The two lived in their Los Angeles office space for a year. The second year, he said, they worked in shifts and got about two hours of sleep a night. Last year, their company, Kernel of Truth Organics, opened its own space in Boyle Heights, and they currently sell to several LA-area restaurants.

“I’ve been sort of reborn in the tortilla, based on what I was eating at my parents’ place, the Mission, the Guerrero, all that Gruma stuff,” said Ortega, who is a first-generation Mexican American. (He’s referring to the mass-produced corn tortilla brands owned by Gruma Corporation.) “So it was definitely an awakening. I felt like I believed in it, and to this day I still do.”

In Sawyer, Michigan, a small town near the Lake Michigan shoreline, Aaron Harris recently decided to quit his screen-printing consulting job to run Molino, a tortillería he founded in May 2019 that sells tortillas made with landrace Mexican corn. Like Masa in Hawaii, Harris buys from Masienda, a Los Angeles-based company that imports such corn grown on small farms. Harris, whose grandmother was Mexican American, said he started on the tortilla journey after wanting to make tacos at home for his wife. He found the local tortilla options lacking, so he began digging around on YouTube to learn how to make them himself.

Molino currently sells red, blue, and yellow corn tortillas at the St. Joseph Farmers Market, and Harris said they often sell out. Most of his customers are white women around 35 to 50 years old, though a few dozen farmers have also approached him about growing corn for tortillas. He’s currently working with the state and local farmers to develop a variety of white corn for a tortilla that is all Michigan-made.

“I’ve always been into craft things — craft coffee, craft drinks,” Harris explained. “When you start to realize that there’s all of these different varieties of corn out there that you have access to, there’s a lot of artisanal things that can happen.”

Like any business, corn tortilla-making has its challenges. Corn tortillas have only three ingredients — corn, slaked lime, and water — yet making them well is tough. The process calls for boiling dried corn with the alkaline solution, letting the corn rest for several hours, then rinsing it and grinding it with a little extra water into dough. But different types of corn require different cooking times. Some days the dough may need more water, and other days, less, depending on factors like weather and humidity. Masa also sours quickly.

Joahna Hernández, who started Manos de Maíz in Washington, D.C., in 2016, said she’s told chefs who aren’t familiar with the process that it’s not as simple as just following a recipe, because a specific recipe—or even a set of fool-proof ratios—doesn’t exist. 

“It’s not until you actually do it and put it on a comal that you will be able to set up a process to make your tortillas,” she said. The business currently sells stone-ground tortillas, sopes, and quesadillas at area farmers markets. “It’s a passion,” she said. “You have to dedicate hours and years to learn actually how it behaves, and learn to love the ingredient.”

Another challenge is educating palates. Most Americans only know a bland, white corn tortilla made with Maseca corn flour, because that’s what’s been sold in supermarkets. When you offer them an heirloom corn tortilla, the taste of corn is almost too intense, said Joe Bossen, co-owner and co-founder of All Souls Tortillería in Vermont. Bossen said that some chefs told him that the tortilla’s flavor would distract too much from the filling.

“People want a really thin, almost too supple white corn tortilla because of that contemporary legacy,” said Bossen, who opened All Souls with two partners in 2015.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Marissa Gencarelli of Yoli Tortillería started her business with her husband after craving a better tortilla than what existed in the marketplace. The company launched in 2017 with one client. They now sell red, blue, white, and yellow corn tortillas to around 35 restaurants, in addition to Whole Foods and other local grocery stores.

“Ultimately our vision is not just stone-ground corn tortillas. It’s to really contribute to how Mexican products are being done here in the United States,” said Gencarelli, who is from Ciudad Obregón, Sonora.

Another challenge is price and accessibility. Not everyone can afford a sustainably sourced tortilla, which seems slightly outrageous considering that the corn tortilla is the foundation of the Mexican diet. The tortillería owners I spoke with said they’d love to create a cheaper tortilla, but they haven’t quite figured out how — the price of the corn and extensive labor involved means they can’t compete with mass-produced supermarket tortillas.

Neftalí Duran, a food justice advocate in Massachusetts, said it would be easy to criticize the tortillerías for making an expensive tortilla. But the real issue is questioning why corn is so cheap in the first place, he said.

“It is cheaper to buy food that is bad. It is cheaper to buy food that’s mono-crop as opposed to organic, or any other food you can think of,” said Duran, a member of the I-Collective, a group of indigenous chefs and activists, and an immigrant from Oaxaca. “I don’t want to pick on a small company. I want to ask the bigger issue: Why don’t we have access to good corn or good tortillas?”

Jorge Gaviria, founder and CEO of Masienda, said the only way for the price to go down overall is for more consumers to start recognizing the value of a tortilla made with non-commodity corn. Besides importing Mexican corn, Masienda also manufactures tortillas made with landrace Mexican and American corn, for sale at Whole Foods and other specialty markets.

“The price to me is irrelevant if there’s not sufficient cultural value placed on another way of eating or consuming,” Gaviria said. “So we have a lot of work to do before that’s the case.”

Header image of grinding masa courtesy of All Souls Tortillería. Photo Credit: Tim Fuller.