I absolutely love tacos. I frequently eat Americanized tacos with sour cream and shredded cheese and my mom’s breakfast tacos made from leftover BBQ meats, chopped and sautéed with onions and garnished with her table salsa, chopped raw onions and cilantro. At my house we gleefully participate in Taco Tuesdays.
So what do I mean by “You can do better than a taco”? I mean culture doesn’t have to be contrived. For the last two years after reading Pobre Ana with my Spanish I class we spend several days doing review stations. But stations aren’t really the point of this post. What I really wanted to share with you is how easy it can be to bring the products and practices (we covered perspectives while reading the novel) of the target culture into your classroom with food. Food can be so very stereotypical but you can make it super authentic.
One of the themes of Pobre Ana deals with worldly wealth. Ana spends a lot of time comparing her life and material possessions to those of her friends. She even laments not being able to go eat “good food at nice restaurants” like her friends and their families. After living in Mexico with a host family she realizes that her life isn’t so bad and she’s rather fortunate. The book doesn’t give any specific information about Ana’s diet or that of her host family so we had to make some inferences about what they might eat. We know (thank you Social Studies teachers) that corn plays a large agricultural role in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Also, I have some insider info about a typical Mexican diet (at least in the state of Coahuila).
I’ve actually lived in Mexico in a tiny village way, way, way up in the mountains of Saltillo, Coahuila. When I was six my parents decided it was time for us to experience our mother’s culture and meet our extended family. We moved to Guajardo during the summer and I remember chasing hundreds of Monarch butterflies (very symbolic for Day of the Dead) through the corn fields. I remember the corn harvest, the prized huitlacoche, the small fire pits that were built in the fields and filled with freshly picked corn for a tasty treat. Have you ever had fire-pit corn?! It’s amazing. In the fall and winter I remember sitting in a large circle with several relatives, desgranando maiz just like in this video, literally removing the dried corn kernels from the cobs-a difficult task for tender hands. The kernels were soaked in cal, what we know as lime, and softened for making hominy. I remember walking to the village mill, el molino, with my grandmother to grind the softened corn. The mill was like nothing I had ever seen.
A true relic from an hacienda, powered by burro or very energetic children! The corn was added to the large stone and my grandmother carefully supervised the process, monitoring the texture of the masa, adding water and more corn. With this hard-earned masa my family enjoyed many delicious dishes such as: tortillas, tamales, gorditas. Some corn was ground dry for later use. All winter we had delicious atole made from that dry corn, carefully spiced with ground orange rinds, anise, cinnamon and Chocolate Abuelita.
I show my students this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcan7L4azWc before starting the stations and we talk about the tortillerias found in the city, where city folk buy their tortillas. I also make a BIG pot of Ranch style beans using my mom’s recipe.
The tortilla station is by far the most popular. Once the tortillas are made I show my kiddos how to eat the beans using only the tortilla. That’s right, tortillas are the perfect utensil! It’s actually common practice to use a tortilla in place of utensils. I was a master at this skill by the age of seven.
See how easy it is share authentic culture via food? And to tie in cross-curricular information? We touch on the chemical process of the lime changing the corn kernel, the agriculture, history, even nutrition. Whatever your target culture, I’m sure there’s a stereotype concerning food and a way for you to debunk that stereotype with more authentic examples.
Now that you’re convinced you want to make tortillas with your students here’s what you’ll need.
#1: PERMISSION! If you plan to cook in your classroom I strongly urge you to get permission from your administrator. Or at the very least give them a heads up. If an accident happens in your classroom this would not be one of those instances where asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission.
#2. Volunteer(s): If you teach the Littles or are super concerned about your Middles doing the cooking get an adult to help you. Watching Master Chef Jr® might be awe-inspiring but be careful not to overestimate your kiddos.
#3. A griddle like this one I found at Wal-Mart: and spatulas for flipping the tortillas. I use the plastic ones to avoid scratching the non-stick coating on the griddle.
#4. Tortilla Presses: I bought the aluminum because they don’t weigh too much (think smashed fingers or toes if dropped) and they’re not as expensive as the cast iron ones. You’ll also need gallon size plastic bags for cutting out liners for the press.
#5. Maseca: One bag goes a long way plus some salt and water. Just follow the directions on the bag. Once mixed you’ll want to keep the dough covered or it will dry out. You can adjust the consistency of the masa by adding water.
#6. Time to practice making tortillas if you’re rusty or brand new to the process. First mix your masa flour with salt and water following the instructions on the package. Once you have your masa mixed you’ll want to experiment by making golf ball or billiard ball sized spheres to gauge how far the masa will spread (the size of your tortilla press will determine how big). You’ll need to cut 2 circles from a plastic storage bag (use gallon size and trim to the desired dimensions) to line your press. Place one plastic liner on the bottom, then the masa sphere and then the other liner. Close the press and push down gently. If you spread the masa too thinly just scrape it off and start over. When you make a successful tortilla round carefully remove the top liner, place the raw masa round onto palm of your empty hand and carefully remove the other liner. Gently lower the round onto the griddle. Be very careful doing this. You can’t just plop the round down because it will either fall apart or smoosh together. Also, don’t try to place the round on the griddle with the plastic still attached. The steam escaping from your cooking tortilla will melt the plastic. Cook for a few minutes on each side until the tortilla “puffs” and you see little brown speckles. If you burn any don’t worry, that’s just ranch style! Check out this video to see the process.
Here’s a super interesting and very long article about tacos from the online journal Feast: http://feastjournal.co.uk/article/eating-the-cutlery-eating-tacos/