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Masienda's Shared Quest to Save Mexico's Ancient Corn Heritage

Masienda's heirloom corn tortillas | Molly DeCoudreaux
Learn more about the people at the forefront of the <a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">'Alta California' food&nbsp;</a><a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">movement</a>in Los Angeles on "<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">The Migrant Kitchen</a>." Watch now.
Alta California

“Corn became this fixation of mine because I couldn't understand how something that exists for strictly culinary purposes came so far away from that,” Jorge Gaviria tells me during a phone interview. Gaviria is the founder of Masienda, a company that acts as a broker and importer for small-scale Mexican farmers of landrace corn. Founded in 2014, Masienda sells corn grown in Mexico and, as of 2016 the United States as well, directly to restaurants throughout the United States, including Galaxy Taco in San Diego, Taco Maria in Costa Mesa and Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria in Los Angeles.

Before starting Masienda, Gaviria worked in restaurants, in particular at Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York, where corn stood out to him as a crop whose output was in dire need of rehabilitation. “The more I unpacked it, the more I realized that you know we have really come a long way from a nixtamalized corn kernel to a corn kernel that was being used mostly for ethanol, cattle or anything else any other industrial application you could think of,” he says, referring to nixtamalization, which is a way to prepare corn for cooking.

During the nixtamalization process, the ears are shucked and the dried kernels are simmered in an alkalized solution of water and lime, where they sit overnight and are eventually rinsed. This process improves flavor and nutrition concentration in the corn and allows for easier grinding and emulsification. It’s a practice that has gone by the wayside in Mexico, save for rural areas, as store-bought tortillas have flooded the market, providing an easy and inexpensive alternative to making tortillas from scratch. Cheap corn imports into Mexico from the United States came after NAFTA was enacted in 1994, all but collapsing rural economies that relied on agriculture, significantly altering the food system and endangering the known 59 varieties of landrace corn that are native to Mexico.

“Most local, regional and national maize dishes in Mexico are tied to a specific maize race or grain type, which works best in the preparation of the dish,” Willcox explains. “The variety of starch, protein and texture combinations makes this culinary diversity possible. Maize and Mexican cuisine have co-evolved, and so there’s a specificity among types of dishes and even types of tortillas and the races or variants of native Mexican maize used.”

This means that the vast majority of corn tortillas in the world’s largest tortilla markets — Mexico and the United States — are what many consider to be poor quality, containing genetically modified (GMO) and hybridized corn, fillers, gums, preservatives, colorants and, occasionally, wheat flour. According to food scholar Laresh Jayasanker in “Sunbelt Rising The Politics of Space, Place, and Region,” these tortillas are also probably made by the world’s largest tortilla company, GRUMA, who make the Mission Foods and Guerrero tortillas, as well as contract with the likes of Walmart, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC. These mass-produced tortillas lack the unique flavors that come with each variety of landrace corn, resulting in a uniform, commodified tortilla that lacks flavor and tastes the same as the next one. A true corn tortilla, Gaviria says, contains only corn, water and cal, which is the calcium hydroxide powder used during nixtamalization.

Knowing this, Gaviria looked towards Mexico for a solution. “Mexico is where the origin story of corn takes place,” he says, referring to the fact that corn domestication was first discovered in Mexico about 11,000 years ago, in what is now known as Oaxaca. “If there was anything to learn about corn the conversation, the exploration needed to start there. My initial goal was to create a tortilleria that would utilize this product — I thought that this was the purest way to express a higher quality corn and ultimately convert people to the benefits of using it,” he explains, recalling his thought process while developing Masienda.

“But in terms of actually developing the supply chain, I learned over time that there are two million small farmers in Mexico that are growing heirloom corn. These are the custodians of all the genetics in the world when it comes to corn. It is far and away the largest biodiversity concentration in the world and, by extension, the largest concentration of flavor diversity in the world,” Gaviria says of his “aha” moment when he decided to import different varieties of heirloom corn himself from Mexico to the United States. “From a culinary perspective, it was a no-brainer because this was the flavor you can only get from landrace corn was not something known to the palate of the Americans--and, frankly, even Mexicans because it's hard to access for most. Small farmers live in very rural parts of Mexico and only serve their own communities. They have been very much excluded from the trade conversations after NAFTA,” he adds.

Masienda works with small-scale farmers growing heirloom corn in Mexico | Molly DeCoudreaux
Masienda works with small-scale farmers growing heirloom corn in Mexico | Molly DeCoudreaux

Gaviria knew that restaurants were a good entry point, so he began selling corn to Mexican restaurants throughout the United States for them to nixtamalize and make into tortillas or other dishes requiring corn. Taco Maria, in Costa Mesa, California, was one of the first to partner with Masienda. Owner and Executive Chef Carlos Salgado says he can’t exactly recall when Gaviria’s business card ended up in his pocket, but that it was early on. “I do remember calling him up, and I immediately connected with this person who shares the same values. He had already worked so hard on research, reintroducing these lost flavors to Mexican and Mexican-American chefs, and then worked really hard at great risk in an unproven market to create a system where we could have those flavors in the United States,” he says.

Why is corn diversity so important for Mexican cooking? Dr. Martha Willcox, who lives in Mexico as the Maize Landrace Improvement Coordinator for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), says that Mexican cuisine itself is incredibly diverse and that in the United States, we have a limited understanding of just how diverse it is.

“Most local, regional and national maize dishes in Mexico are tied to a specific maize race or grain type, which works best in the preparation of the dish,” Willcox explains. “The variety of starch, protein and texture combinations makes this culinary diversity possible. Maize and Mexican cuisine have co-evolved, and so there’s a specificity among types of dishes and even types of tortillas and the races or variants of native Mexican maize used.”

Gaviria gives the example of the tlayuda, a Oaxacan street food staple made with a large corn tortilla by the same name, explaining that Oaxacans in Los Angeles ship their tlayudas from Oaxaca to L.A. “They pay 75 cents a tlayuda just to use it in a restaurant — per tlayuda! That is a significant premium, and they pay it because, in Oaxaca, it’s made from a specific corn called bolita. It's harder and flintier corn that thrives in that area that is particularly drought resistant, as it’s had thousands of years to acclimate to the soil and climate,” he describes, explaining that when cooked, this particular corn has a more toothsome starch, allowing it to be stretched into a large format.

Salgado adds that the blue corn he gets from Masienda has become what he uses for his standard tortilla at Taco Maria. “The resulting masa is flexible, high yielding and you can make the tortillas thicker. They’re still very tender and very aromatic. That just wouldn’t be achieved with the standard product out there, which has no distinct aroma or taste. And some corn is better for making pozole, some better for frying. You don’t get that diversity with store-bought tortillas,” he claims.

Jose Ralat, a Texas-based writer whose book,American Tacos: A History and Guide to the Taco Trail North of the Border,” is due to be released soon, says the importance of preserving landrace corn goes farther than taste alone.

“Corn is the foundation of Mexican culture. It is at the root of a creation myth, and its importance is expressed in the adage ‘sin maiz no hay pais,’ which I translate to, ‘without corn there is no civilization.’ To eradicate corn in all its variety is to eradicate Mexican identity and culture. To push back on the shrinking diversity and quality of corn is to resist domination from outsiders,” Ralat explains.

Heirloom corn grown by small-scale farmers in Mexico and exported to the U.S. by Masienda | Molly DeCoudreaux
Heirloom corn grown by small-scale farmers in Mexico and exported to the U.S. by Masienda | Molly DeCoudreaux

Salgado echoes this. “The indigenous Aztecs of central Mexico considered themselves to be a people of corn. And in a sense, Mexicans really are made of corn because there's a tortilla at every meal and you are what you eat,” he says. Because of that, Salgado, Ralat and Gaviria all lamented the fact that since NAFTA, Mexico imports much of its corn from the United States, even though Mexico has the capability and biodiversity to be completely corn-sufficient.

On that topic, Willcox knows that the issue is not production, as there are two million small-scale landrace corn farmers in Mexico, but putting in place the, “necessary mechanisms that allow small-scale farmers to collectively clean, bag and transport their salable harvest to those willing to pay a price commensurate with the culinary quality, diversity and cultural history of this grain,” she explains. She noted that intermediaries like Masienda are expanding and absorbing a lot of those previously prohibitive costs, as well as the profits, while acknowledging that farmers are getting better prices for their corn than ever. But she cautions that these intermediaries have a responsibility to ensure that these farmers, who are historically the smallest, poorest and most marginalized, receive the direct benefit from what she calls the boom in heirloom tortillas.

Masienda has found success with a large number of restaurants in the United States, whose chefs agree with Salgado that good quality and taste are necessary when serving corn tortillas. The company recently expanded its efforts to include corn farmers in the United States and just announced its newest venture, Masienda Bodega, which is a new line of corn tortillas that will be sold in at least 200 stores across the United States, including Whole Foods. In the future, Willcox predicts that large companies will be keeping a close eye on this market and looking for ways to enter or buy out successful initiatives to market heirloom maize.

As for the future of landrace corn farming in the United States, I asked Willcox if we’re too far down the path of using GMO corn to turn our attention to heirloom varieties on a mass scale. She turned the question back on me.

“I think the more appropriate questions are these: are U.S. consumers too far down the path of cheap and uniform food to consider supporting diversity and small-scale farmers? Are they willing to look for trademarks and symbols that are associated with small-scale farmers, transparent marketing, and prices that support the livelihoods of smallholder maize farmers?” she asked. They are good, unanswered-as-of-yet questions, the answers to which Masienda’s future depends. More importantly, so do the futures of the farmers under Masienda’s umbrella.

Ralat had one more question for me. “Wouldn't it be nice if Masienda's packaged tortillas replaced Guerrero or Mission tortillas in homes across the United States?” he asked, referring to two of the biggest packaged tortilla brands in the country. As stores across the country begin to receive Masienda’s tortillas, it remains to be seen how much home cooks will be willing to pay for a high-quality product with a limited shelf life. But the answer to Ralat’s question, for anyone who has tried a real corn tortilla is, emphatically, “yes.”

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