An Heirloom Masa Supplier Champions the Origins of the Historic Latin American Dough | The Slowdown - Culture, Nature, Future
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Courtesy Chronicle Books
Courtesy Chronicle Books

Many people eat masa—the Spanish word for the maize dough produced from stone-ground corn and used for making corn tortillas, gorditas, tamales, pupusas, and other Latin American staples—with little or no idea that it represents a multibillion-dollar industry, one that relies heavily on environmentally damaging agricultural systems that strip corn of its flavor and health benefits. A game-changing player in the masa world, Jorge Gaviria is the founder and CEO of Masienda, a supplier of heirloom masa, corn, and beans, and the first to create a scalable market for the surplus corn grown by more than 2,000 smallholder subsistence farmers using regenerative practices across more than 30,000 acres throughout Mexico.

Before launching Masienda in 2014, Gaviria worked at upstate New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns (run by Dan Barber, the guest on Ep. 62 of our Time Sensitive podcast), educating diners on the sensory and environmental benefits of sustainable, holistic sourcing. While there, he realized that the Latin foods of his childhood were largely absent from the farm-to-table movement, especially with regard to masa. The more he researched its ancient origins and contemporary supply chain, the more he felt compelled to champion the humble yet historic dough, which he calls a “vital cultural bond stretching the length of the Americas.”

Out last week, Gaviria’s new cookbook, Masa (Chronicle Books), represents another step in the food entrepreneur’s quest to reposition masa within the milpa (corn farm) to mesa (table) conversation. Along with more than 50 recipes representing cuisines from across South America, Gaviria eloquently contextualizes the dough’s rich history and the fascinating science of transforming masa from dried corn kernels to complete dishes. We recently spoke to him to learn more about the local nature of the food, its vast cultural importance, and how to best optimize its flavor.

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Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)
Photo illustrating the kernel-to-masa process. (Courtesy Chronicle Books)

In Masa, you write about the “deep pleasure” you felt in Oaxaca’s Central Valley where farmers’ families effortlessly prepared tortillas made from their very own heirloom corn. Can you describe the taste of perfect masa?

In Oaxaca’s Central Valley, they grow an incredibly vibrant yellow corn called bolita. I took a bite of a raw kernel, and the flavor tasted like butternut squash and carrots, because it had retained beta-carotene and other valuable nutrients not bred out by the industrial process, which prioritizes yields and productivity over flavor and nutrition.

Up until then, for me the tortilla was a supporting character at any meal. In Oaxaca, I saw the tortilla really stand on its own. The best analogy is the feeling you get eating a perfect Paris baguette after a lifetime of eating Wonder Bread. Suddenly I was exposed to such a diversity of flavors absent from my childhood and even my adult experience. Nuances and flavors originate in the raw ingredients, then add to that preparation techniques and even how they’re served up. I became obsessed because all of these elements make such a difference in the pleasure payoff.

That first Oaxaca tortilla I tried had a sort of crustiness on the outside, but with a molten center, a similar contrast in texture that you get with the best baguettes. The flavor was compounded by nixtamalization [the process by which corn is steeped in an alkaline solution to draw out flavor and essential nutrients] that brought out an umami effect, with a little bit of sweetness, plus solidity and nuttiness. Fat in the corn kernel even lingered on my palate. The taste was profound, and I understood how farmers could take these tortillas into the fields and eat them on their own.

You write that corn and tortillas taste different in Oaxaca, with its thirty types of corn tortillas, than in Jalisco, or Chihuahua, or Yucatán. What is behind the taste variations?

Corn is a domesticated plant. It cannot exist without human intervention. What blew my mind was how regional the taste variations were—how much ecology and climate really inform the entire kitchen they support.

Across Latin America, corn presents as a spectrum: Some corn tastes incredibly dense, others floury. The kitchens and the recipe canons that surround the agriculture are directly related. Then you have special varieties, like colored corn, consumed more often to celebrate special occasions. The tortilla is linked to a natural product that looks and feels different in each native environment. Then you layer on techniques that over time have developed in response to their locations, and the results are remarkably different tastes. Sometimes, that creates division or local pride based on what each community knows and thinks of as the real thing. With this book, however, I wanted to celebrate all types of masa.

How would you describe masa’s importance in Latin American cultures?

As long as there’s migration, there’s cross-pollination in food, which you see in the twentieth century and earlier, but then at hyperspeed now with the internet and travel. If you go back to pre-Colombian deity worship, corn had a really symbolic meaning. Out of that history comes masa as we know it, making masa not Mexican, but also entirely Mexican. Masa doesn’t know borders; this one food item connects so many of us.

What ingredients and conditions, such as single origin corn, can optimize masa?

Masa is very simply made of corn, some kind of alkaline agent, and water, so you don’t have much to manipulate from an ingredient perspective. However, within each of those ingredients, there’s room to manipulate for flavor. Water changes hydration and cooking time, which affects flavor. It’s why bagels taste better in New York City than they do in Los Angeles. Corn is the biggest lever because you have so many microclimates—fifty-nine in Mexico alone—and these produce thousands of combinations. Ultimately, single-origin corn is more about connecting with place and process. Flavor can be so subjective and sometimes such an emotional experience; feeling connected to where your food is coming from makes the flavor taste so much better.

Unlike mass masa production, Masienda’s model of working with subsistence farmers prioritizes biodiversity in the growing process and naturally enhances the flavor. How would you describe that difference in flavor?

Mass masa will last longer on grocery store shelves, but ultimately with less taste, because preservatives affect flavor. Over the last fifty years, a lot of the thinking has been taken out of the process in favor of efficiency and scale, and there has been a movement towards the white tortilla, more wheat and less corn, because of a Eurocentric preference for wheat. But that consistency comes at the expense of all of the natural compounds with their nutrients. Ultimately, diversity just tastes really good.

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Despite coffee’s side effects, which can include pit-in-your-stomach anxiety and sleepless nights, caffeine addicts haveaccording to the National Coffee Association, only seems to be growing. But coffee’s not the only way to add some pep to your step. There are a number of tasty alteMud\Wtr, a blend of familiar ingredients (masala chai, turmeric, sea salt, lion’s mane mushrooms, and others) that impart a comDandy Blend actually tastes like a coffee-and-hot chocolate mashup, which is surprising, given that it’s made from dandelion, chicoRasa, a company based in Boulder, Colorado, that offers multiple blends that promote immunity, lower stress levels, and incr

A Kokoro Care Package open to show its contents on a patterned white and red background.

If journeying to Japan feels out of reach—or even impossible, in the midst of a pandemic—fret not. The subscription box Kokoro Care Packages brings the best of the country to you via monthly, quarterly, or one-off parcels, delivered year-round. Noodles, soups,

A simple, rectangular binchotan grill on a white background.

Summer may have passed, but after the year we’ve had, and the months of isolation yet ahead, maintaining a sense of warmKaginushi charcoal BBQ konro grill. Designed in a variety of sizes, including some large enough to cook a whole fish on, the pared-down appliance sits on binchō-tan charcoal around the ignition device inside, and switch it on to get grilling. It’s not quite the great outdoors, but th

Four sake bottles on a white background.

In 1989, friends Deborah Fleig and Linda Tetrault started running the store at Ten Thousand Waves, a spa-centric sanctuaFloating World Artisan Sake Imports to bring Japan’s finest brews stateside. Their knowledge shines through the company’s wide-ranging website catalogue, Akishika Okarakuchi variety, made by just five people at a tiny, 134-year-old establishment nestled in the mountains between Kyoto and OsakMukai, a label run by one of the few female tōji (master brewers) working in the industry today. Libations for more adventurous palettes include Kaze no Mori (“Wind of the Woods”), a floral, fruity, unfiltered sake with a cult following, and a dry, earthy sake from Mutemuka, a brewery in Kochi Prefecture, that’s aged for six months and has a distinctively nutty aftertaste that smacks of cacalist of distributors before holing up for the holidays.

Chef Bill Granger smiling in a sunny room.

Since opening his first restaurant, Bills, in Sydney in 1993, few people have done more for the global understanding of Bill Granger, commonly (though, he’ll politely say, not necessarily correctly) known as the man who gave the world avocado toast. NoAustralian Food (Murdoch Books), a delicious collection of wholesome recipes including one-bowl meals, chopped salads, and fish dishes. We recently spok Over the last twenty years, you’ve authored ten books—none of which squarely tackle the topic of Australian food. What

A hand in a blue plastic glove holds a purple knife above a pink, purple, and red jelly cake atop a pink platter.

As the holidays roll around, gelatin desserts—a festive Thanksgiving staple, cast in extravagant shapes and fantastical Nünchi. Shapes such as five-petaled flowers recur in Park’s delicate, decidedly cute confections, which riff on the Sanrio characters and Morning Glory stationery that filled her childhood. Most of her work falls within a pastel colorway—happy colors, if you will—but she’ll branch

An illustration of a glass of white wine next to a heaping plate of nachos.

Unimpressed by the snobbery that surrounds the wine industry, writer and sommelier Vanessa Price set out to prove that aIn a weekly column for the New York magazine food and restaurant blog Grub Street, she has aligned Cheetos with Sancerre, barbecue ribs with Côte-Rôtie, and

Baked potatoes sitting on wax paper with salt and pepper.

If you’ve found disposable hand-warmers to be tepid at best, consider the baked potato. According to historian Geri Walton, in the Victorian era, street hawkers doled out the humble spud as more than a meal: Large, coarse-skinned French Regen

A small wheel of cheese dusted with green matcha, next to a matcha spoon.

Cheese may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering Japan’s rich culinary traditions—but as Malory LanJapan Cheese Co., tells us, it’s part of a growing artisanal movement among regional producers who are finding ways to create experiment

Orange and red bottles of wine in the sunlight on a natural linen tablecloth.

Omar Sosa, co-founder of Apartamento magazine and Apartamento Studios, has an unfussy love of natural wine. Here, he describes the process of developing a dVivanterre (a riff on the French term for “living earth”), a new line of natural wine produced by Patrick Bouju and Justine Loisea

Michael W. Twitty sitting with a plate of biscuits in front of a large open fireplace.

The award-winning African-American Jewish author and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty got his start in food writing Afroculinaria, as an outlet to document and celebrate the rich cultural histories of African-American fare and the vital role they haThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South—not to mention his open letter to Paula Deen, in 2013, that went viral, even as it was left unanswered by the disgraced Food Network host. Reflecting upon his own bsaid in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s also simply survival—through the mental fortitude of humor, the mental fortitude of memory, and the mental forti@thecookinggene) to keep abreast of what he’s cooking up next: a new non-profit called the Muloma Heritage Center, located on South Carolina’s historic St. Helena Island. Dedicated to educating visitors on African Atlantic culture, c