Why Are Tortilla Chips So Damn Good?

For the past thirty years a handful of scientists at Texas A&M have devoted themselves to answering an extremely important question.
Why Are Tortilla Chips So Damn Good?
The TA.XT2 texture analyzer, from Texture Technologies, in the lab at Texas A&M.
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

Though he is now, among other things, an internationally known expert on the tortilla, Lloyd Rooney was a grown man with a Ph.D. before he first bit into one. This happened in 1965 or ’66, not long after he joined the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M. He was raised on a wheat farm in Kansas—one of his earliest memories is of following his grandfather through a field of wheat—and for his doctorate in cereal chemistry at Kansas State he’d studied the browning of bread. Hired as a sorghum specialist, with funding to research sorghum quality for livestock feed, Rooney arrived at A&M with little experience of Mexican culture or Mexican food. Then came a fateful trip to South Texas for a “field day,” an opportunity for agricultural researchers and farmers to meet with one another. There, he ate something round and soft and wonderful.

At that time I would have called it a ‘tor-till-a,’ ” he told me, pronouncing the word so that it rhymed with “gorilla.” Tortillas were then still a food that came from across the tracks. He became fascinated with them, though, especially corn tortillas, “because they were good, number one, and number two, when I asked questions about the making of them, the production, the chemistry, very little was known.” Tortillas were a promising candidate for study. “I came out of a program that was wheat bread, wheat bread, wheat bread. I was sick of wheat,” Rooney said.

I met Rooney at the 13th Annual Practical Short Course in Snack Foods Processing, held last April at A&M. I’d come there hoping to learn at least a little bit about tortilla chips, which, in addition to constituting, along with salsa, the official Texas state snack, have been a subject of scientific study in College Station for more than thirty years. If nothing else, I wanted to know who had undertaken that scholarly pursuit and why and what it consisted of; in my mind was a hazy image of a bag of chips, a dish of guacamole, and lasers.

Attendance at the course was down this year, which organizers attributed both to the global economic crisis and to the fact that they’d been unable to time it just before a snack food industry event known as SNAXPO. Nevertheless, on the first morning of the course, a couple dozen snackologists from around the globe convened early in the morning to listen to a lecture called “Extruders in Snack Food Preparation,” followed by a discourse on pressing issues faced by the industry, delivered by a man representing the Snack Food Association. Just for starters, the man complained, there was a tendency rampant in the media to label snacks “junk food,” whereas a preferable term would be “fun food.” Snacks have many adversaries, he implied. Among them seemed to be the state of California and the entire European Union.

Rooney, who deserves much of the credit for establishing Texas A&M as a center of tortilla studies, was up next. A wiry man of about seventy with a sergeant’s squint and a low, booming voice, he began with a sharp


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