On Nixtamal & “Quote Tamales”

We started of #TacoLiteracy today with a reading from Eater, “California’s Lost (and Found) Punjabi-Mexican Cuisine“. This article gives a great deal of history about migration from Southeast Asia to California, and how Indian immigrants found their way to agriculture fields working alongside Mexican immigrants. The article also points to immigration policies that restricted the movement of migrants back to India or to the United States, and how these restrictions created imbalances between the amount of Punjabi men and the small numbers of Punjabi women. This led to Punjabi men starting families with Mexican women, and in these relationships also producing new styles of Mexican-Punjabi food, which would, then, be distinctly Californian. Make that: American. The hybridity of the cuisine happened on the terms these people set for themselves, and, as the article points, in humanizing ways.

This was a rich article for discussion, but my question was about food in the article, and why history and politics was necessary to tell the story. It wasn’t a stretch to make the argument that food is political, and to understand the food, we must have a historical context, and ask lots of “why” questions.

We transitioned back to the film Mexington to speak more about masa and, of course, nixtamalization. The Ramirez family story about migrating to Kentucky, opening their own restaurant, and then supporting the community became a story we saw before, relating to a sense of care that happens through foodways. Diving deeper into nixtamal, I pointed to the the article by Lesley Tellez we read, focusing on NY’s best tortilla makers and the women who practice this knowledge, expertise, yes, literacy.

We turned to the process of nixtamalization, and I had to break up how this English word has Nahuatl roots, nixtamal, which translates to the corn paste, the masa, used to make so many Mexican foods, including tamales. Students picked up on the cognate tamale right away. But to really understand this gift to humankind, we had to see what the process looked like. This video does a pretty fair job.

The labor of the women illustrates something mentioned by Pilcher in Planet Taco: that the great Mesoamerican civilizations were built on the backs of women, and this important work for sustaining societies.

Then, in order to give the students even more, but, really, to do some writing, we did some Instagram practice. Students had started the first couple chapters of Taco USA, so I pulled a quote by the Maestro Gustavo Arellano about the history of chili, the first mass-produced Mexican food to conquer the US panza.

We read the quote over, then I asked students to leave a response, hell, you can too if you want. Students generated some ideas to the quote, and then we used this to have a rich discussion about chili, formerly, chile con carne, and, maybe before that, carne con chile.

The responses were what I was after, because the day was the day I emphasized the “PIE” method for writing body paragraphs. PIE stands for Point, Information, Explanation. Point, is the point of the paragraph, and how this goes back to a central thesis. The I, information, is the cited information. The E section is the most important part, where students grapple with the passage, analyze it, and tie ideas together, before transitioning to the next idea. With the PIE tripartite structure, students have a way of imagining the organization of body paragraphs that focus on the analysis of text. Meaning, the text will be under the microscope, will be the center of your PIE. But since this is Taco Literacy, we’ll go ahead and call these “Quote Tamales.” Next class we’ll practice working on them, but we started a Google doc to go over together what these look like. Next class we’ll finish it off.

Here’s a link to the Google doc, for a PIE paragraph.

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