The stunningly designed tortillas chef Julio Hernandez makes at his Nashville food truck and pop-up, Maíz de la Vida.Photograph by Houston Cofield
“There’s two types of tortillas ceremoniales,” Hernandez says over Zoom. “There’s the one that we press and we ink. And then we have the ones with the colors.” During the Spanish conquest, which began in the 1500s, Indigenous people would hide a tricolor tortilla between stacks of single-color tortillas, and this marbled disk sent a message. “It was a meaningful tortilla,” Hernandez explains. It’s a technique that mixes three different kinds of colored maíz that can appear geometric or abstract and marbled depending on the technique.
This tortilla—unlike the plainly colored ones it was hidden among—acted as a way to maintain both identity and religion. These ceremonial tortillas were born in the Tlaxcala region. “It reminds you of how rich and beautiful the god de maíz is,” Hernandez says. “Because as you were being converted to Christianism, they were making you forget about your gods.” The stakes of keeping these traditions alive were high—Hernandez says the cost of being found out was death. The messages had to be kept secret, and the tricolored tortilla was a quiet form of resistance.
Olivia Lopez of Molino Olōyō, a molino, pop-up and catering service in Dallas, was raised in Colima, Mexico, but says that the practice of creating bright patterns with masa derived from heirloom maíz was a tradition she wasn’t familiar with growing up. “[Once] the big mass-produced corn movement took over, that’s when those traditions started slowly getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they were put in this little corner.”
But today, Lopez works with colorful masa made with maíz from regions like her hometown and revels in expressing its natural beauty. Across Mexico there are about 60 varietals of maíz, and they hold a vast spectrum of color and differences in texture and taste. Each requires different cooking times from one another, and can not all be nixtamalized using the same approach, which is what makes a mixed-masa dish such a special and impressive feat. To show off maíz’s spectacular range, Lopez opts to prepare each masa in a different way and serve dishes in a fashion that emphasizes their contrast: tostaditas that alternate white and purple, served with aguachile, or chilaquiles that use a trio of yellow, purple and midnight blue chips.