Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Soledad Zambrano makes tortillas for her family in her kitchen with a wood stove in Tamaula, Mexico, February 2012.

Warm tortillas: There’s no competing with rural Mexican mothers

An American mother and disciple of “Super Baby Food” ­realizes – with one whiff of these warm tortillas – that she can’t compete with rural Mexican mothers when it comes to homemade food.

It was not until the morning that I awoke in Soledad Zambrano's home in the central state of Guanajuato, watching her carry a giant blue bucket of corn kernels behind her house, that I realized: As a new mother priding herself on feeding her baby only “homemade” food, I could never compete with the mothers of rural Mexico

I followed her back to the covered shack where an old corn grinder was manually started by her husband, who had to use his body weight to get the wheel turning. Soledad carefully poured the corn into the contraption – dating back to the 1970s – to make dough, that she then pressed into disks and then cooked over a stone comal in her kitchen.

By the time we sat down for a lunch of cactus soup with dried shrimp fritters, an Easter specialty, with our requisite pile of tortillas, she had dedicated half the day to her family's basic consumption (this count excludes the labor of sons, husbands, horses, and donkeys planting and harvesting the corn in the first place).

Mexicans consume unfathomable quantities of corn tortillas. For them, it is the bread of Europeans or rice of the Chinese or Vietnamese. I used to marvel at the stacks placed in front of me at restaurants: I would barely make a dent, while Mexican colleagues would make it the whole way through.

For the poorest Mexicans, tortillas provide about half of a family's daily caloric intake, and when corn prices rise there are riots. I used to hear these statistics with a certain amount of pity.

But that's until I had a baby, and until I walked into Soledad's kitchen.

I am an avid, some might say obsessive, follower of the book “Super Baby Food,” which advocates homemade purees in lieu of commercial jars and recommends sprinkling dessicated liver powder on food or mixing yogurt and kale as a treat. I myself add wheat germ and flaxseed to breakfast most days.

But the book, which is dogeared in so many places that the markers are practically useless, has no references to corn tortillas (excluding as well other healthy grains in this part of the world, like amaranth or quinoa).

We like sandwiches in my house, but a favorite is quesadillas, with avocado, beans, and cheese (and sometimes an added topping of wheat germ). A delicious “homemade” meal in a matter of seconds that baby loves.

But she is not so fortunate as to dine on Soledad's version.

Soledad's family in rural Guanajuato state, of course, complains: beans and tortillas, beans and tortillas, that's all we ever have, griped one daughter-in-law as I was leaning, awed, over the piping staple. They were, quite simply, the best tortillas I have ever had (except for perhaps the next day, when yesterday's tortillas were cut into strips and fried, and then topped with beans and cheese, for a hearty Mexican breakfast).

Soledad, who still has a daughter in elementary school, has to worry about there being enough food, not what kind of variety she can offer. Everything her family eats is vulnerable to rains and pests.

But when it comes to homemade and locally grown, she puts us “Super Baby Food” devotees to shame.

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