Posts Tagged ‘atol

17
May
10

Corn tortillas and Bay to Breakers

Chez Cervantes-Ferguson was culinarily busy, and full of runners, this weekend for Bay to Breakers. All of which partly explains how I found myself, at 5:50 yesterday morning, breakfasting on two stale corn tortillas and some cherries because they were the most readily available food in the house.

A little over an hour later, I was standing at the corner of Howard and Spear, corn tortillas whizzing through the air around me. Apparently this is a Bay to Breakers tradition. It took me three tries to get the hang of making one fly like a frisbee.

The tortillas got me to telling Courtney about atol and the changing availability of fresh corn masa in my grandparents’ neighborhood in Houston when I was growing up. When I was very young, there was a woman in the neighborhood who had a wet mill and ground her own nixtamal. She would make extra for any neighbors who wanted to buy it. Usually there wasn’t much demand, except in December, when everybody wanted to make tamales. Maybe someone would buy fresh corn masa if they were making a big batch of enchiladas, but almost everyone preferred flour tortillas and thought of corn tortillas as poverty food.

The holidays were also the only time I experienced champurrado–a sort of hot chocolate thickened with fresh corn masa. I had no idea that champurrado was part of a whole matrix of drinks known as atol: sweetened milk or water thickened with a grain, usually corn masa or old corn tortillas, but sometimes fresh corn, rice, or oats. Like champurrado, horchata and my grandmother’s sweet, milky preparation of Cream of Wheat also belong to the atol matrix, but I didn’t know what to call it until I lived in Guatemala for a while as an adult. When I came back and mentioned it to my grandfather, he said that atol was often all his family had to eat during the Depression, and that he couldn’t stand the stuff, or the memory of it. So it was no wonder neither I nor my mother had ever heard of it.

When a Fiesta supermarket opened up at the end of my grandparents’ block in the early-to-mid-80s, its mill put the neighbor lady out of business. It was able to run at large volume all the time because of a fresh wave of immigration–the newcomers preferred corn over flour tortillas. I’m sure they knew all about atol, too.