Wednesday, October 09, 2013


Let me begin by leveling with you here. I just watched this great recent interview with the farmer-poet-badass-octogenarian Wendell Berry and it had me all fired up.

I was going to open this post with a loud rant on US corn production, Monsanto & Cargill monocultures, and the crop subsidies that ruin people's health and, since the mid-90s (NAFTA), have flooded Mexico with cheap commodity corn, collapsing local markets and displacing millions of rural Mexicans from traditional livelihoods in regions where corn was basically invented and has been cultivated for 5,000 years, where one out of every three tortillas in the chilaquiles is now made from cheap US corn.

That’s how I was going to open, but I’m going to try to have a better attitude than that. It has been good bringing in the harvest and, although our own garden wasn’t much to blog about this year, we’ve had a couple other different plots around town, like in the new Ephraim Community Garden, where we picked fifty-something ears of flint corn and have been able to gather a few lbs of potatoes (red, yellow, blue).

Also, we’ve been making a lot of tamales. This is partly a seasonal thing for us, and it’s become a kind of nesting ritual as we’ve been getting ready for this baby. (Before having Ash, we made a freezer-full of lasagnas. With Tom it was enchiladas, I think.)

A couple batches of these were from the usual store-bought Maseca flour, but this time we wanted to try out some of this flint corn. Pretty quickly we found out you don’t do much with this stuff without first nixtamalizing it. MS Word has just indicated to me that it has no use for this word, but, basically, it’s the process that has made maize a viable food for a long, long time.

from Wikipedia:

In the Aztec language Nahuatl, the word for the product of this procedure is nixtamalli or nextamalli, which in turn has yielded Mexican Spanish nixtamal. The Nahuatl word is a compound of nextli "ashes" and tamalli "unformed corn dough, tamal."

Nixtamalization typically refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled.

The Aztecs and Mayans routinely cooked their corn in lime water (calcium oxide) which improves its nutritional profile considerably: Niacin, which otherwise remains largely unavailable, is made accessible by the process of nixtamalization, calcium increases by 75% - 85% making it more easily digestible, and other minerals, such as iron, copper and zinc are also increased. Furthermore, nixtamalization also counteracts certain mycotoxins present in untreated corn. Fermentation of nixtamalized corn produces even more benefits: increased levels of riboflavin, protein and niacin in addition to amino acids, such as tryptophan and lysine.

Unfortunately this biochemical transformation was completely lost on the Spaniards, who brought corn back with them to the old world and introduced it to Africa, where it soon became an important food crop. However, the people who came to rely on it, but did not have the advantage of traditional knowledge to guide their use, soon became sick with niacin deficiency symptoms.

So, anyway, we tried it with a few cobs’ worth.

Here’s the process, roughly, from hard kernels, to hominy, to the blender, the masa, the filling (pine nuts, queso ranchero, garden Anaheim and green hatch peppers for some, spiced neighborhood apples and pecans for others), and finally, the steamer.

 The rest of the masa we made into tortillas and chips.

Tom taking the leftover husks to the compost.

We tinker with the recipe nearly every time. So rather than post instructions, why don’t I curate some videos here? 

Iliana de la Vega from The Culinary Institute of America demonstrates nixtamalization, grinds the stuff in a big industrial mill (molino), and makes fresh tortillas.

A soft-spoken woman nixtamalizes corn in her home kitchen. (But then she has to go and make it all into corn nuts!)

Yuri de Gortari nixtamalizes, and goes on to demonstrate grinding with a steel hand-crank mill, then a stone one, and then a metate, all while talking about Mexican identity, impeccably dressed and mustachioed! (Spanish)

And, finally, this adorable family proves that you can hardly go wrong making tamales, even when you use Jiffy muffin mix (!), spray the corn ojas with PAM (?), double wrap everything in foil (?!), and then sweeten them with xylitol and sucralose. While wearing a Santa hat.

Speaking of tamales, meet Finn Ovid Brooks!
Born Friday night.

related: Hunahpuh, tortillas, husks

Sunday, October 06, 2013

afterbirth; roots and routes

In my dream I flew over the rolling hills of the llano. My soul wandered over the dark plain until it came to a cluster of adobe huts. I recognized the village of Las Pasturas and my heart grew happy. One mud hut had a lighted window and the vision of my dream swept me towards it to be a witness at the birth of a baby.

I could not make out the face of the mother who rested from the pains of birth, but I could see the old woman in black who tended the just-arrived, steaming baby. She nimbly tied a knot in the cord that had connected the baby to its mother's blood, then quickly she bent and with her teeth she bit off the loose end. She wrapped the squirming baby and laid it at the mother's side, then she returned to cleaning the bed. All linen was swept aside to be washed, but she carefully wrapped the useless cord and the afterbirth and laid the package at the feet of the Virgin on the small altar. I sensed that these things were yet to be delivered to someone.

Now the people who had waited patiently in the dark were allowed to come in and speak to the mother and deliver their gifts to the baby. I recognized my mother's brothers, my uncles from El Puerto de los Lunas. They entered ceremoniously. A patient hope stirred in their dark, brooding eyes.

This one will be a Luna, the old man said, he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest.

And to show their hope they rubbed the dark earth of the river valley on the baby's forehead, and they surrounded the bed with the fruits of their harvest so the small room smelled of fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans.

Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoofbeats; vaqueros surrounded the small house with shouts and gunshots, and when they entered the room they were laughing and singing and drinking.

Gabriel, they shouted, you have a fine son! He will make a fine vaquero! And they smashed the fruits and vegetables that surrounded the bed and replaced them with a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar. And they rubbed the stain of the earth from the baby's forehead because man was not made to be tied to the earth but free upon it.

These were the people of my father, the vaqueros of the llano. They were an exuberant, restless people, wandering across the ocean of the plain.

We must return to the valley, the old man who led the farmers spoke. We must take with us the blood that comes after the birth. We will bury it in our fields to renew their fertility and to assure that the baby will follow our ways. He nodded for the old woman to deliver the package at the altar.

No! the llaneros protested, it will stay here! We will burn it and let the winds of the llano scatter the ashes.

It is blasphemy to scatter a man's blood on unholy ground, the farmers chanted. The new son must fulfull his mother's dream. He must come to El Puerto and rule over the Lunas of the valley. The blood of the Lunas is strong in him.

He is a Márez, the vaqueros shouted. His forefathers were conquistadores, men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered. He is his father's blood!

Curses and threats filled the air, pistols were drawn, and the opposing sides made ready for battle. But the clash was stopped by the old woman who delivered the baby.

Cease! she cried, and the men were quiet. I pulled this baby into the light of life, so I will bury the afterbirth and the cord that once linked him to eternity. Only I will know his destiny.

Rudolfo Anaya
Bless Me, Ultima (1972)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

dead and lovely

Once, years ago, I was driving out on the Old Bingham Highway, the road that leads to the largest open pit mine in the northern hemisphere. I came to a stretch of construction. A bearded man in an orange vinyl vest, digging with a road crew, had set aside his blade and was carrying a long, angry gopher snake across both lanes of traffic to place her gently in the grass on the other side. Like a Buddhist pilgrim, carrying dung beetles across the path.

I say “gopher snake,” but I could say “bull snake” or “blow snake,” as they’re also sometimes ambiguously called here.

Most of the time when I see snakes, it’s when I’m out running on the dirt roads and trails around town. And most of these are dead. Road kill, or rattlesnakes shot through by a .22, the rattle torn off and the rest of the body left on the roadside. Some of these are still pretty gorgeous. “Dead and lovely,” as Tom Waits puts it. But I’ve never really had the nerve to wrap one around my arm and run it the 5 or 10 miles home.

Except for a couple weeks ago. This time I’d taken the stroller with Tom in it. (He’s way too big for this, but I thought it would be a good way to get him out a little ways before breakfast, without him getting hungry and mean.) On the way home from looking at rocks and bones and stuff, we came across a beautiful, dead gopher snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, put it next to him in the stroller, and took it home.

Searching the internet for instructions on skinning a snake will take you to all kinds of exotic places. From the typical,, and wiki.answers-type sites, to buddy-buddy hunting and taxidermy forums, youtube videos, self-consciously reverential photo essays, and weird masculine-survivalist message boards.

Here are some of the things I gathered from these:
  • There is, as they say, more than one way.
  • Rattlesnakes tend to be easier to skin than constrictor snakes, like gopher snakes.
  • People use all kinds of stuff to tan or soften snake skins. Things like neatsfoot oil, salt, antifreeze, or a 50-50 mixture of alcohol & glycerin, which is what we used.
  • People also still make some pretty sloppy youtube videos.
These are actually the underside of the skin. When I first skinned, cleaned, and pinned it, the color was a kind of opaque white, but now the scale pattern shows right through. I also thought about looking at snake recipes, but it had probably been out on the road a little too long for that, so we buried the rest in the yard. I’m not including any photos here of the skinned snake. (You’re welcome.)

I’m still trying to decide what to do with the skin. I actually do need a new belt soon, but I don’t know if I’m the kind of guy who could get away with that, and I don’t love the idea of just gluing this to a strip of leather. So I’m open to suggestions. I guess Halloween is coming up.