texasmonthly.com: Who came up with the idea for this story?
PS: Evan Smith. He thinks it’s important to celebrate the Hispanic elements of Texas food heritage and is even thinking about doing something on chiles and tamales in the future.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
PS: It took about two months, on and off.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about gathering initial information for this story?
PS: I e-mailed all our restaurant reviewers in fifteen cities (more, if you count the Rio Grande Valley as several cities), everyone on staff (three Texas cities), plus some other random foodies and asked if they had favorite places for tortillas, both restaurants and factories. I also made a list of places I had reviewed for my November 1999 article, "The Joy of Mex," on Mexican food in Texas. We called all of them to see if they made the tortillas themselves.
texasmonthly.com: Was there some kind of criteria that you used to narrow down such a huge topic?
PS: I basically limited the restaurants to those that were recommended by people I knew or that I had visited before. I’m sure I must have missed some good tortillas, but there are thousands of Mexican food restaurants in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Did you go to all of these places yourself?
PS: I did some restaurants in Austin and San Antonio myself, but it took so long that I ended up getting people in the other cities to go and personally pick up the tortillas and Fed-Ex them to me by overnight delivery so they would be as fresh as possible. In Dallas and Fort Worth, June Naylor, a freelance writer, did the work. She personally went to all of her places. She did a great job with those cities.
texasmonthly.com: How many tortillas did you taste?
PS: I probably tried around 150, and my co-author for Dallas and Fort Worth may have tried 40 or so.
texasmonthly.com: Were you prepared for the amount of tortillas that you received?
PS: I was deluged with tortillas. I tried giving the leftovers to the birds and squirrels at my house, but they wouldn’t touch them. I have no idea why. Some of the tortillas sat in the yard under the bird feeder and looked awful until it rained and they dissolved. I wonder what the neighbors thought. The only luck I had was with chips. I put them out and a yellow cat came and ate them. He came back four times. I gave tortillas away at the office until people began to snarl, "What, not more tortillas!" Then I found a friend who knew someone at a soup kitchen, so I gave away dozens and dozens.
texasmonthly.com: Were some of the tortillas shipped? If so, what did you do with them? How long do they keep?
PS: Most of them were shipped. The ones from restaurants, with no preservatives, keep for maybe four days in the refrigerator, but I tasted all of them way before that. I froze some of my favorites for my personal use.
texasmonthly.com: Did this story turn out to be harder than expected?
PS: Logistically, it was incredibly hard just getting all the calling done to see who made their own tortillas. Also, a lot of the factory workers didn’t speak English, and my Spanish is rusty. I had to get a co-worker to translate the questions for me. Getting all the tortillas here was hard too. I could hardly get to my desk if boxes from different cities had been stacked up for a couple of days. Then there were the store-bought tortillas. The first store I went to, I bought eighteen packages of different tortillas. The clerk looked at me pretty funny.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything new about tortillas?
PS: Tons. I learned all about how they are made, the history, and the different preferences of young and old Hispanic people, which I think is sort of fascinating. All the older Mexican America people I talked to could refer to their aunt’s or grandmother’s tortillas as an example of a good homemade tortilla. They knew them inside out. Younger people, Hispanic and Anglo alike, don’t have that personal standard. Not many people have time to make them at home, fresh, anymore.
texasmonthly.com: Do you remember the first tortilla that you tasted for this story? If so, where did it come from?
PS: It was from Chango’s tortilleria in Austin, but I eat those all the time. They make a fantastic corn tortilla.
texasmonthly.com? What was the best thing about this story?
PS: I discovered how good flour tortillas made with lard are! I never thought I would say that, but it’s true. They are so much better than those made with shortening.
texasmonthly.com: What was the worst thing?
PS: Some nights I would go home from work about eight o’clock, eat dinner, and then taste a dozen or more tortillas. They all had to be heated up, kept in order, and notes had to be made. Sometimes I was up until ten trying to think of a different way to say "flavorful" or "thin" or "multilayered." You start getting desperate for synonyms.
texasmonthly.com: Which do you prefer, flour or corn?
PS: I still prefer corn because they seem like real Mexican tortillas to me. I had always thought of flour tortillas as Johnny-come-latelies, but I got to like them better. And they are much more common in some parts of the state, like El Paso, for instance.
texasmonthly.com: Do you still like tortillas?
PS: Oh yes, but I’m much pickier now.