The Zen of bug-infested tortilla dough

A few weeks ago, my cooking class instructor gave us our first major homework assignment. For the July 29 class, we were to bring one kilo of nixtamal, or dried corn that’s been soaked in a mixture of water and slaked lime. (Slaked lime is known in Spanish as “cal.”)

We could either soak our corn the night before class or do it Thursday morning. But the corn had to sit undisturbed for eight hours.

Luckily I already had my corn — I’d bought a kilo at the Central de Abastos about a month ago, before my cooking course even started.

I didn’t have time to make the corn Wednesday night. So at 9 a.m. yesterday, I padded into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, in my pajamas. I took out my corn from the pantry and poured it into a bowl.

I tweeted that I was about to make nixtamal. And of course I took a few photos.

Innocent-looking corn, before things turned ugly

The recipe I used, jotted down in class

I rinsed the corn under the faucet and shuffled the kernels with my fingers. And that’s when I spotted them: tiny black bugs, about the size of bread crumbs. My stomach dropped. There were bugs in my corn.

I’d seen these bugs before. They appeared in my pantry shortly after I moved in this apartment in May, crawling around my (unsealed) bags of garbanzo flour and pinole. At the time, I threw away the flour and pinole and cleaned the pantry from top to bottom. I also transferred everything to airtight metal and glass containers, the freezer, and Ziploc bags. I did not think the bugs could eat through Ziploc.

It looked like they could, however, find their way into a tightly knotted regular plastic bag, which is what I’d stored the corn in. Did that mean my Ziplocs were infested too? I had a lot of rice in Ziploc bags, and bengal gram I’d bought in India. I gathered as many as I could from the pantry and tossed them into the freezer. I felt like crying.

To somehow salvage my homework assignment and my pride, I decided to continue with the nixtamal. There really weren’t that many bugs. Only like six or so. Or maybe… 10. I’d boil them with the cal and the suckers would burn alive. I could fish out any dead ones with a serving spoon.

So that’s what I did. The mixture of corn, cal and water undulated and bubbled. I tried not to think, “Burn, suckers, burn!” (A vengeful heart rarely produces positive results, in my experience.)

A few little dead buggies floated to the top and I scooped them out with a serving spoon. I also snapped a few more pictures, because bug infested or not, the corn was still pretty. Thirty minutes of boiling had changed its color from bland white to a dull yellow.

While taking these pictures, I spotted a few black specks on the corn kernels. The specks weren’t really on the kernels, but underneath the thin skin of the grain.

Oh no. Could it be… ?

I gathered a few kernels and cut them open with a knife. Sure enough: the bugs had burrowed inside the corn.

Inside the corn!

I couldn’t finish this batch of nixtamal. It was over. I’d failed my first homework assignment.

This is when I called Crayton and cried.

“I messed up my nixtamal,” I said, sniffling. “And I have to go to Mercado Merced and buy all new containers.” I drew in these little sharp breaths, and the tears ran down my face. At the same time I thought: Why am I crying? This is just corn. And bugs. It didn’t mean anything. But it did, deep down.

“Don’t worry, I’ll go to Mercado Merced with you,” Crayton said. Which was really sweet, because he abhors markets. “We’ll get you some really pretty containers.”

That made me feel better. After I hung up the phone, I remembered that my classmate said he might have an extra kilo of corn available, just in case any student needed it. I called him and told him about the bugs, and he said sure, no problem. He’d bring me an extra kilo.

That night at class, we sat in front of our metates. We ground our nixtamal for more than an hour, pressing the corn into the rock until it became a moist dough. I was happy I had corn to grind, but I couldn’t figure out how to make my masa softer and less grainy. The masa of the students on either side of me looked perfect. I cursed the bugs that ruined my own masa and cursed my sore fingers.

As time went on, the repetitive motion of grinding-gathering, grinding-gathering, soothed my thoughts. I realized: Wait. Why am I being so competitive? This masa was perfectly fine. I could only do what I could do. The point that I’d entirely missed here was that some things were beyond my control. Sometimes a girl just has to live with grainy masa, and bugs in her pantry. The world is still a really good place.

At the end of class, just before 11 p.m., I made four tortillas with my grainy dough. Two came out normal, and two wrinkled and misshapen. I took one of the wrinkled ones home. Even if it wasn’t perfect, it was still mine. Think I may eat it with peanut butter later as a snack.

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11 Responses to “The Zen of bug-infested tortilla dough”
  1. Jody

    Are you OK now?

  2. Maura

    Ay, Lesley! Que horror! Making masa is hard enough as is, but the bugs, too? Pobrecita! This might be one of my favorite posts of yours thus far. Having made masa before, I know I always feel emotionally involved with the process, if that makes sense. When it doesn’t turn out the way I want it to, I get upset. Making masa, after all, is a lot of work – from soaking it to boiling it, to pulling off the hulls after it’s been in the cal, you invest a lot of time in the preparation alone. Then the grinding to make the masa, forming the dough and cooking it. It really gives you an appreciation for those who didn’t have the option of going to the store to buy tortillas and instead made them daily at home. Can you imagine doing that daily?

    But if you look at the header image on my website, notice the wrinkles and ridges (and even a few burned spots) on my tortillas made from scratch. It’s the imperfection that makes them beautiful, no? I’d gladly smear your wrinkly tortillas with some crema & a sprinkle of sal and eat them right up – any day of the week!

    • Lesley

      Aw, thanks Maura. You’re right: the blackened spots and imperfections are what makes a homemade tortilla unique. And the fact that it was made with love, or by someone’s sweat and tears. (Definitely both sweat *and* tears in my case.) :-) I really appreciate your kind words.

  3. Katie

    What an adventure! Way to be zen.

    Beyond the corn bug saga, the thing I love most about this post is your spanglish class notes! It took me back to college days where I would just use german and french words in my notes in other classes because it was easier and more succinct.

    • Lesley

      Katie: I’m glad you caught that. I actually have this weird fascination with taking photos of my notebooks. I love how they capture a moment on a particular page. I still have all my notes from my nightlife-reporting days, and some are scribbled on napkins, coasters, receipts… whatever I could fit in a tiny purse. I know there’s gotta be an art project in there somewhere.

    • Maura

      I have to say I also noticed the code-switching Spanglish notes – looks like my little reporters’ notebook! I do the same thing, especially with writing recipes in my notebooks.

      • alice

        Love the Spanglish!!

        Also, that tortilla looks delicious!!!

  4. Don Cuevas

    We need further research of the role of insect protein in the pre-Hispanic diet; in fact, in today’s diet. Perhaps you should attend El Día de Los Jumiles, in November in Taxco to gain a better appreciation of insect foods.

    Seriously, there is nothing as effective as placing your plastic bags of grains and cereals in a very cold freezer compartment for at least 36 hours. Any bug eggs are zapped, and harmlessly. I desperately need to buy a large freezer, more for storage than bug control.

    Don Cuevas

  5. Cooking in Mexico

    Don Cuevas hit the nail on the head. Insects, to this day, contribute protein to the diets of indigenous people of Mexico and other countries and have for millennia. Our abhorrence of them is strictly cultural: Mom didn’t serve us fried grasshoppers, or ants, or tortillas with little bugs, and we’re not about to start eating then now.

    A different note on the same thread: my mangoes have Mexican fruit flies in them. When I zizz mangoes in the blender to make smoothies or lassis, they disappear and no one is any the wiser. Except me.

    I blogged about my buggy mangoes a few days ago and learned that fruit flies in fruit and weevils found in grains are perfectly safe to eat, though not necessarily appetizing to look at.

    This would make a great topic for Rachel Lauden.

    P.S. Adding California bay leaves to stored grains deters weevils. Maybe Mexican bay does too, but I don’t know. Freezing works, too, as D.C. mentioned.

  6. Richard Moreno

    I like your blog, you are a funny lady. I myself am in the the Philippines and I am trying to figure a way to make tortillas de maiz here because the attempts at mexican food here for the most part are awful. I don’t want to use a metate for the obvious reasons you just stated so I am in search of a electrical nixtamal wet corn grinder that can be use in either a household or small business. The search goes on…. Good luck on your endeavours and I plan to follow your blog because I like your “stick-to-it-tiveness” attitude and sense of humor.

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