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.
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.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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