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Tortilla Nation

Why Americans are all wrapped up.

12:00 AM, Sep 9, 2008 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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YOU MIGHT HAVE heard that September is National Preparedness Month. Or that it is National Cholesterol Education Month. But did you know it is also, for the first time, National Tortilla Month? In a member's resolution, California representative Devin Nunes states, "I would like to recognize September as National Tortilla Month to highlight the contributions and hard work of this important industry." As in a staple of the Latin American diet has become so dominant in the United States as to merit thirty days of dedication.

Should this warrant concern? Is the massive influx of Latin American immigrants into our country having such a profound impact on the culture as to affect even our eating habits? In financial terms, tortillas have grown into a $6 billion a year industry. Nevermind the debate over English as our official language--what about white bread as our official source of fiber? It may be too late.

In a 2002 study commissioned by the Tortilla Industry Association (yes, the tortillas have lobbyists; no, their offices are not overflowing with chips and salsa), tortillas trailed white bread in American consumption by a mere 2 percent. That being the most recent analysis, one can assume tortillas are by now either tied or have surpassed white bread. What's next? National Pupusa Month?

Of course, arguments can be made as to the fairness of comparing all tortillas, meaning flour and corn, crispy and soft, with white bread exclusively and not alongside wheat and whole grain. (A similar debate, in fact, broke out last year when another survey indicated Americans spent more on salsa than on ketchup. Technically true, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, salsa is more expensive, and Americans still have greater quantities of ketchup in the home than salsa.)

But more important is the understanding that the nation has never really subsisted on one particular cuisine throughout its history. The American diet has continuously undergone a process of culinary assimilation from the early days of Pennslvania Dutch cooking (favored by George Washington) to hot dogs (of German descent) to pizza (which became enormously popular after World War II). The current embrace of the tortilla is simply another turning point in this process--one worth noting and, historically speaking, long overdue.

When Hernán Cortés first encountered the Aztecs in 1519, aside from the human sacrifices and cannibalism, he noticed the natives enjoyed eating corn ground into a flat bread called, in the Nahuatl language, tlaxcalli. (According to legend, Aztec men were made from corn.) A dietary staple, tlaxcalli had been consumed by the indigenous population for thousands of years. But this was news to the Europeans--in a letter to Charles V of Spain, Cortés mentions his discovery of what became known as the tortilla.

Over the next several centuries, the tortilla made its way north. By the early 1960s, thanks to small-business entrepreneurs like Glen Bell, who, in 1962, built his first Taco Bell stand in California, the tortilla began to proliferate throughout the United States. Today, there are more than 5,800 Taco Bells across the country that generate annual sales of over $5 billion. During the 1970s and early '80s, several other casual-dining Mexican restaurants flourished across the country, most notably Chi-Chi's, founded in 1977. Their commercial success led Time magazine to run a 1982 article, "The Enchilada Millionaires," that profiled the owners of chains like Chi-Chi's and El Torito. (Incidentally, the demise of Chi-Chi's came in 2004 after an outbreak of Hepatitis A was linked to its restaurants.)

According to another study commissioned by the Tortilla Industry Association in 2004, 78 percent of high-end restaurants and 74 percent of casual eateries across the country featured tortillas on their menus. Indeed, think of any fast food chain today and tortillas (or wraps) are inevitably part of the lineup: Burger King sells the Cheesy Bacon BK Wrapper--scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and an American or smokey melted cheese sauce, wrapped in a tortilla. Wendy's has a variety of "Go Wraps" with three types of chicken. Speaking of which, Kentucky Fried Chicken has gotten into the act with items like the Crispy Twister, involving its trademark Extra Crispy fried chicken contained in a flour tortilla.