Standing at the counter at Kreuz Market in Lockhart last week, I was asked, “Bread or crackers?” I thought about it for a moment, but all I wanted to say was, “How about some tortillas?”
Instead, the large group I was with opted for a half sleeve of saltines (filling up on bread was not part of the feasting plan), and at the end of the meal, more of the crackers were left on the butcher paper than consumed. There was no reason to pack the leftover crackers to go (they’d surely be smashed en route), and even if we had taken some bread home, it would likely turn soggy or stale before we could eat it. As I stared at those crumbling bits of saltines languishing in the oily dregs of our carnage, my mind returned to dreams of a short stack of tortillas and the possibility of barbecue quesadillas made with the remainder of our order. This, I thought, is an obvious–and superior–alternative to a leftovers sandwich.
This is Texas, after all. We’ve had the choice between corn or flour tortillas since at least 1760*. Packaged pre-sliced white bread has only been an option since 1928, when it was first sold in Missouri. White bread might now be the norm, but Billy McDonald of Mac’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas remembers serving rye bread in the fifties. Cornbread was once cheaper to produce, and is still a favorite in barbecue joints in East Texas like Leon’s in Galveston, and especially in others that serve soul food along with their smoked meats. At the Slow Bone in Dallas, they’ll give you a slice of cornbread or a couple of fried hushpuppies. The point is, there’s plenty of white bread out there, but it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as one might think. And perhaps it shouldn’t be.
But why is so inextricably linked with barbecue? White bread reigns because it’s expected to be free–and white bread is damn cheap. But is it good? Even in his “Ode to White Bread” in the pages of Texas Monthly in 2008, all the praise writer Stephen Harrigan could muster for the simple staple is “It is not just more absorbent than a paper towel; it is also slightly better tasting.”
You know what else is cheap? Tortillas. In my hometown of Dallas, my favorite spot for a stack of fresh, warm, homemade corn tortillas is La Nueva Fresh & Hot, where they come forty to a package for $3. That’s where the Not Just Q barbecue truck gets its supply. And when you tuck some of his smoked pork chile verde into one, the last thing you’ll be wishing for is a slice of white bread.
Another benefit? Dare I say it? It’s gluten-free. Corn tortillas are on trend, it would seem.
Portability is yet another point in tortillas’s favor. Sausage wraps are one of my favorite cheap foods, and they’re perfect for on-the-go eating. Wraps are increasingly found on barbecue menus, often with the option of white bread or a tortilla. But when something’s called a roll-up, it almost seems more proper to literally roll it up in a tortilla. Heck, one of the nicknames of white-bread sausage wraps is a “Polish taco.”
I realize this could turn into a taco v. sandwich debate, but when a big pile of meat is at the table, I often see white bread used less like a bun and more like Ethiopian injera. Bits and scraps and pickles and onions are sprinkled down the center of the bread, which is folded in half around this medley. This assembly is not made more challenging with a tortilla; in fact, it’s probably a little more stable (like rolling a joint … so I hear).
Okay, so even if we do turn this into a sandwich v. taco debate, I’ve never considered not getting a taco at Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, which offers both sandwiches and tacos on their menu. The warm, housemade flour tortillas stuffed with smoked brisket, guacamole, and salsa are incredible. Add an egg for breakfast, and you’ll be sold too.
I’m not saying that white bread, or even saltines, should no longer have a place in Texas barbecue. They both serve a purpose, and for some, the nostalgic connection is more important than the flavor or the function. But maybe we can open barbecue’s bread tent to include tortillas too. This is already happening at some joints, like BBQ on the Brazos, which has no problem letting both bread and tortillas exist harmoniously on their menu. So let’s embrace our most Texan carbohydrate and bring tortillas into the fold.
* Taco expert José Ralat pointed me to the first reference of flour tortillas in Texas in Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco.