The Exploding Tortilla

Plus an 1886 recipe to make corn tortillas.


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“Unaccustomed to the easy-going life of their Mexican neighbors, [old-timers] were not contented to farm a little, eat a frugal meal of frijoles, chili and tortillas, and finish with a cigarette.

“They craved more luxuries and more entertainment than this primitive little border town afforded,” remembered Marie Carter, a pioneer who lived in Anthony, New Mexico, 23 miles south of Las Cruces.

She asked a man who came to the town in 1884 if he liked the native foods, to which he replied, “Not at first, but it didn’t take me long to learn, and in a short time I was takin’ my frijoles, tortillas and chili straight.”

The corn tortilla has been a food staple of Latin cultures for centuries and dates back to at least the Aztec empire. Cooks made the tortilla by soaking corn overnight in lime water, until the outer husks of the kernel were loose enough to roll between the hands, and then ground it using a mano and metate.

While tortillas and other foods native in the West were popular in some places, it was detested in others. Mexican, Chinese and Indian foods were considered peasant foods for the local poor and were not touched by most who settled the West. Some even called the tortillas “plastic.”

Around the late 1880s and 1890s, pioneers began embracing the tasty delicacies native to their surroundings. As early as 1884, six tamaleros or tamale vendors operated in Dallas, Texas. In 1890, local...

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