Jewish

The Tricky, Twisty History of Flour Tortillas

March  3, 2018

Wait, flour tortillas are Jewish? That doesn’t sound right. Actually, it sounds so wrong, I couldn’t stop wondering, wondering, all thanks to this late-night stumble-upon in the Houston Chronicle. (What am I doing looking at decade-old news stories on tortillas? Oh, who knows?) I always understood flour tortillas to be a Tex-Mex staple—and they are—but apparently, they were around long before Texas (1845) or Mexico (1824). By then, people had been grinding wheat into flour, which was mixed into dough, which was pressed into patties, which was cooked into floppy, flaky tortillas, for several centuries. Who, though?

There was a small influx of Jewish immigrants to the Texas-Mexico border region in the 1500s—conversos hiding their faith to avoid persecution—then greater numbers during the Mexican independence movement in the early 1800s. The Houston Chronicle is talking about the first wave: “Since corn was not kosher and they were accustomed to eating flat pita bread, they began to make tortillas out of wheat.”

If you’re wondering why corn isn’t kosher, same. I’m Jewish but not kosher (because bacon) but some of my relatives are. Pork and shellfish: no go. Meat with milk: definitely not. But corn? Why? A little digging—and a New Yorker piece—sorted this out. Well, kind of: Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat grains (like wheat, barley, and rye) during Passover, an homage to our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt when they escaped so speedily, there was no time for bread to rise. In addition to these grains, they also don’t eat legumes and friends, like rice and corn. Ah-hah! you say. Corn! But—there’s always a but—most Jews from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East never followed such restrictions.

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So, the Jews who could have created flour tortillas—the ones who moved to the New World in the 1500s—probably had nothing against corn. And they did have something against one of flour tortillas’ three ingredients: lard. Nowadays, you can make them with butter or vegetable shortening. At the time, though, lard was the only shelf-stable fat around. Which means, flour tortillas weren’t kosher. Which means, flour tortillas probably aren’t Jewish. Which means, what are they?


Corn tortillas’ history is clearer—and older. Flashback for a hot second to Mesoamerica: Maya civilization started around 2000 B.C. Aztec civilization started sometime in the 13th century. As Margarita Carrillo Arronte describes in Mexico: The Cookbook: “The major food that the Mayas, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican people shared was corn.” Mayas believed that people were born from corn and, like the Aztecs—who called themselves Mexicas—they worshipped corn gods, even sacrificed humans to keep them happy. To Carrillo Arronte, corn’s cultural significance can’t be overstated:

Without corn we have no country. Corn is the staple food throughout [Mexico] and especially in the Central and Southern regions where it is consumed by all Mexicans virtually every day...Dried corn saw the people of Mesoamerica through their year. The dough or masa made from ground corn kernels was pressed flat, cooked on a small pan called a comal, and eaten daily as tortillas.

Here’s the catch, though: Those corn tortillas weren’t called corn tortillas. They weren’t, in fact, called any one term. I chatted with Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of the Emmy- and James Beard–nominated PBS program Pati’s Mexican Table, and she referenced the Nahuatl word tlaxcalli. “But,” she said, “this was just one of many civilizations that spoke many languages.”

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Top Comment:
“I think corn and flour each have their places, but you can't add sugar and butter to a warm corn tortilla and make one of my [Asian] dad's favorite fast treats. ;)”
— Emily S.
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So where did the word tortilla come from? Follow its etymology back, back, back, and you’ll find the Spanish word torta, or cake. And the Spanish, it turns out, are the lynchpin to all of this. Their brutal New World conquest began in 1492 and reached Mexico in 1519. There were countless cultural differences between them and the native communities, not the least of which was starch preference.

Corn was crucial to the Aztecs and surrounding communities, but the Spanish were not into it. Melissa Guerra, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, explained: “There has always been a European prejudice against corn. It was seen as junk food. There’s this quote in French: Potatoes are for pigs. Corn is for cows.”

What starch did the Spanish Catholics eat, then? You guessed it—wheat. “That was the ingredient they knew and liked,” Jinich said. “Most importantly, it was an ingredient they connected to Jesus Christ. To them, wheat was holy. And corn—they didn’t know what to make of it.” In turn, they, quite literally, didn’t make anything of it. They brought wheat to the region and used that instead.

“Wheat traditions belong to the people of the Fertile Crescent, regardless of religion,” Guerra said. “I have heard of Germans that have claimed ownership of flour tortillas in Texas, also Lebanese. All are plausible.” But none are unequivocal. Flour tortillas’ past, it seems, doesn’t belong to any one culture.

Its present, of course, does: Mexican. In the United States, there’s a fair amount of confusion, even stigma, around flour tortillas. Some assume they aren’t authentic. Others insist that they’re inferior to corn. Jinich, who grew up in Mexico, couldn’t disagree more: “Flour tortillas are very Mexican,” she says. “I don’t choose one over the other, at all, just like any Mexican.”

Flour tortillas are certainly more common in the northern part of the country, where the terroir is more suited to growing wheat than corn. But they’re both integral to Mexican—and Tex-Mex—cuisine. And Taco Bell’s Double Decker taco. Which just wouldn’t have been a thing in the 1500s. This, it seems, is the biggest difference between when flour tortillas came to be and what they are today. Centuries ago, your preference between corn or wheat revealed where you lived, where you came from, who you worshipped. But nowadays, we can have it all.

Do you have a preference between corn or flour tortillas? Tell us why in the comments.

44 Comments

Lorian F. November 23, 2018
There's a long history of "flour tortillas" in Norway, too. What we think of as lefse today includes potatoes, but lefse was made with just wheat flour for centuries prior to the introduction of potatoes to northern Europe.
 
Laura October 26, 2018
I enjoyed reading this. <br />Tonight at a Mexican restaurant I sat next to a family with a member who couldn’t eat corn. They were surprised that the restaurant didn’t offer flour tortillas. No surprise to me. This is a legit place. But instead of acting like I knew about the origin of corn tortillas, I wanted to read something about it. Thank you!
 
ER September 11, 2018
Actually, the crypto-Jews avoided pork and still do. They made wheat tortillas with milk for softer ones or just water, and if available, used beef suet and much later, vegetable oil.
 
Raul M. March 14, 2018
I was blessed with a nana who made both corn and flour tortillas. Corn tortillas were for enchiladas, enfrijoladas (bean sauce), and entomaladas (spicy tomato sauce). Flour tortillas were either "Sonorenses" (large and thin) or "gorditas" (small and thicker--good with soup). A special treat was "mayos." A food of necessity developed during WWII when lard and shortening were rationed and the government distributed coupons for a monthly allotment of mayonnaise. My family never ate mayonnaise, but recognized its high fat content and used it to make tortillas. They were soft and tangy, like sourdough.
 
Cynthia March 13, 2018
Rprp -- can't find any other comment from Rprp -- but that's good to know. Thanks.
 
Rebecca F. March 13, 2018
Much prefer corn, and for tacos and enchiladas it is imperative. Prefer the nutritional profile of corn to flour tortillas also, but am liking some of the whole grain flour tortillas for quesadillas or the occasional breakfast wrap.
 
Rprp March 12, 2018
Cynthia..corn was not ever considered not kosher. That's an error. See my earlier comment
 
Cynthia March 12, 2018
Fun article -- I appreciated the information on why corn was viewed as non-kosher by some Jews. I'm the author of the book "Midwest Maize," which covers a lot of corn history, but being about corn, didn't examine flour tortillas -- so glad to learn that part of the story.<br /><br />Sadly, the Spanish and Portuguese did find a use for corn -- they took it all over the world (back when the whole world had been declared equally divided between the two countries), introducing it to a wide range of people, though usually the poor or potential slaves. Sad, because they didn't learn anything from the indigenous people of the Americas about how to process the corn/maize, so the niacin-deficiency disease pellagra came into existence. But the movement of food around the world is a big topics. Lovely to get one more part of the picture in focus.
 
Anne-Marie March 12, 2018
Emma, thanks for the food history lesson; fascinating!<br />Personally, I prefer flour tortillas (fresh whenever possible) over corn (unless the tortillas are of the crunchy variety) because of texture issues - I'm one of THOSE people who can't eat food that feels weird to them - ha, ha. My husband prefers the corn tortillas - because flour can be too mushy. We have interesting taco nights, for sure! In the end, does it really matter? We're all one, united by our love of all things taco (or burrito).<br />
 
Emily S. March 12, 2018
Wow, I read this article thinking this was a lot of info about food--which, to be honest I just like to eat. And then I read the comments, proving some people wanted even more info! Lol. In seriousness though, it was an interesting read even if there seemed to be no major conclusion. I think corn and flour each have their places, but you can't add sugar and butter to a warm corn tortilla and make one of my [Asian] dad's favorite fast treats. ;)
 
Linda C. March 12, 2018
When I was little corn tortilla was the only one used in our house and in resturantx and now the flour ones are more prominent and I have to ask for the corn ones which I prefer I seem to find them more tasty.
 
deborah March 12, 2018
Hello Emma: I recommend that you read our take on Corn and Flour tortillas in our book, The Tacopedia. best Déborah Holtz
 
AngelinaLaRue March 12, 2018
Thanks, Emma - I enjoyed this!
 
Virginia March 12, 2018
I like both corn and flour tortillas, but prefer corn, love the taste of corn. Born and raised in Latin America, not Mexico, I grew up eating both.
 
Rosalind P. March 12, 2018
Cristina -- thanks for the history overview. Real history is more interesting than, well, not real history, and it seems that on the questions you write about as well as the other errors (about grains and Jewish practice), there was a lot of misinformation (although, as you noted, cleverly written). The silver lining is that those errors brought your clarification, as well as clarification on other points, so we all got to learn a lot and appreciate an aspect of Mexican culture. Thanks for taking the time to sort that out.<br />
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 12, 2018
Hi Rosalind, thanks for reading! Please see my note to Cristina below.
 
Cristina March 11, 2018
It's great to have a sense of humor, and great to have a swingy kind of writing style--but when it comes to scholarly information, it's far better to have the facts. <br />A. There were no "Aztecs" till the mid-1820s; the people the author writes about regarding the tortilla were in fact the Mexica. <br />B. Corn tortillas have been eaten in what is now Mexico for approximately two to three thousand years; tamales were eaten for several thousand years prior to the tortilla. <br />C. It's Maya, both for the name of a language and the name of a people. <br />D. The Spanish brought wheat and planted it in order to make Communion hosts, which by canon law cannot be made from any other grain.<br />E. By 1533, the Spanish were harvesting wheat in the areas of Texcoco and Puebla, neither of which is in northern Mexico. Texcoco is just north of Mexico City, and Puebla is southeast of Mexico City. The place that today is Mexico City was, in the 1500s, the center of Spanish population in the so-called new world. The Jesuits later took wheat to northern New Spain and taught the indigenous people there how to cultivate it. <br />F. Nixtamalization (the process by which the pericarp is removed from each individual grain of corn) was originally done using a mix of wood ash and water. Today, the majority of corn is nixtamalized using calcium hydroxide, a naturally-occurring chemical that performs the same function as wood ash.<br />G. Corn tortillas--if they are truly tortillas, and not some pre-packaged brand on your supermarket shelf--contain only three ingredients: actual dried corn, calcium hydroxide (that's the lime that removes the pericarp), and water. Next time you're thinking of buying a package, read the ingredients list. Anything else in them? They aren't true tortillas. Look around in your town or city to see if there's a tortillería that still uses nixtamalized corn prepared on the premises. They're scarce here in Mexico, and even scarcer in the United States. <br /><br />http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com<br />
 
Smaug March 12, 2018
Most historians consider Aztec culture and Mexica culture as synonyms; either one is a rather loosely defined conglomeration of various peoples.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 12, 2018
Hi Cristina, thanks for reading and sharing these notes. Here are some responses—I hope they help clarify what I was thinking here! <br />A: There are alternate names and, during the time period discussed, the self-name was Mexica. We use the term Aztec in alignment with contemporary publications, but have added this additional detail for clarification. <br />C: We have adjusted the spelling. Thanks for pointing this out!<br />B, D-G: These points don't appear to contradict anything in the piece, but I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and further backstory on this topic.
 
Cristina March 12, 2018
Smaug, the Mexica, self-named from pre-history, were re-named "Azteca" by the founding fathers following Mexico's independence from Spain. When the founding fathers were debating a name other than "New Spain" for the fledgling country, they decided on México and gave the name "Azteca" to the indigenous people formerly known as Mexica--because those people were from the area around Lake Aztlán.
 
Roslyn March 11, 2018
Native San Antonio, Texan here. What a wonderful history lesson! I happily live in a place where both types of tortillas are honored & revered, so this really hit home. Yes, flour is king for Tex-Mex. There's no way someone could "properly" eat a carne guisada taco on corn tortilla. The darned thing would fall apart! And I can't imagine truly enjoying a al pastor taco on flour-it just doesn't work. Wish there were an entire course dedicated to this topic. We'd learn so much. Maybe another topic could be burritos? I can't stand them, but my California friends were born on bred on them. To me, the tortilla becomes too soggy and the burrito is always overly stuffed. I've never had a pleasurable burrito experience. Also, is a burrito truly Mexican or something born from the US? Hmm...
 
noah March 12, 2018
Burritos are Mexican-American. In Mexico, they are not eaten frequently just like Fajitas also more American than Mexican.
 
Smaug March 12, 2018
The burrito is indeed a North American invention. I eat Carne Guizada on corn tortillas often- you do have to move fairly fast.
 
rudder March 11, 2018
delightfully interesting article! thanks for the great read!
 
Stephan March 11, 2018
When my kid brother attended Johnson and Wales to study to become a chef, he did his master's thesis on this very subject i.e. how Jews influenced Mexican cuisine. He even went so far as to interview rabbis in Mexico. Needless to say, he got an A for his work.
 
Patricia R. March 11, 2018
We have the Olmecas to thank for making tortillas higher in protein and more nutritious. They are the ones who discovered that the pericarp (the thin covering over each kernal of corn) needed to be removed to release the nutritional value of corn. They soaked the corn overnight with lime water made from snail shells or lime when they could find it. This is what fueled Mesoamerica and made the indigenous cultures stronger. Patricia Rain