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Idaho Tortillas–An Introduction

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We’re thrilled to be participating in a project that is helping to bring more biodiversity to Idaho’s farms and tables in the delicious form of biodiverse tortillas. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this role is not without its existential angst for me, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m sticking with the facts of the project. For some ramblings on intersectionality in food and my role as a white girl in Idaho growing Indian corns to be made into the Mexican staple tortillas, this is the post to read.

The impetus for the project is that Dave Krick, the restaurateur who has created an enormous market for local farmers to sell their food through his Bittercreek/Red Feather restaurants bought the old Pollo Rey restaurant in downtown Boise and is going to open Diablo and Sons in its place. Because he’s such a badass (and a savvy business owner who knows locally-grown food tastes better and is sexy as hell), he wants to source as much food as possible for the restaurant locally. And the backbone of the food the restaurant will serve is of course corn, much of it in the form of tortillas.

When I heard this, I got hella excited, because I freaking LOVE fresh-made tortillas and you can’t just buy those anywhere in Boise. It just so happens that I’ve been in the midst of a personal enlightenment about the amazingness of corn and its practicality for small, hand-scale agriculture. I’ve been learning to incorporate more flour corns into my farming and more homemade tortillas into my own cooking. I was told by a woman in Colima, Mexico who was graciously showing me to make tortillas not to quit my day job, and I hear her. I’m not very good at it. But frankly I don’t care, because even my crappily made tortillas from corn I grew myself are in another league compared to the cardboard bullshit you buy at the grocery store.

Plus, Dave told me his plan to source locally-grown corn for tortillas right after I’d watched the movie Seed: The Untold Story, where they profile the restaurant Itanoni Tortilleria in Oaxaca City. This place buys landrace corns from small farmers for its tortillas, which means small farmers have a reason to continue to grow these landrace varieties, which like everything else in an increasingly globalized agriculture is at risk of disappearing under a tsunami of tasteless, uniform, chemical-laden, genetically-engineered corn. So while the restaurant is helping farmers to preserve biodiversity, eaters also get the awesome experience of sampling tortillas made from all these different corns, all of which have their own unique flavor profiles. It’s a delicious win-win! So of course I got all hopped up on the concept of doing something like that HERE, and Dave seemed stoked on it too.

Only we have a problem. Several interlocking ones, actually. Unlike Oaxaca, where many farmers are still farming smallholdings and growing landrace corns, our agriculture in Idaho is different. We grow tons of corn here, but almost all of it is that aforementioned tasteless, uniform stuff, mostly grown for feeding to cattle. So we need to introduce varieties that will grow well here AND make delicious tortillas. And once we find those varieties, we have to bulk up our seed because a lot of these varieties you can only buy packets of seed for, and a bigger-scale farmer can’t deal with a packet of seed. So that’s where Snake River Seed Co-op comes in. We’re in the sweet spot in that we have growers in our network of varying scales. Folks who have tiny farms like I do can grow a packet or a pound of seed into 20 or 50 pounds of it, and then we can give it to farmers in our network with a little more land, who can grow out one or two or five acres of it, which will make enough to give seed to someone who can grow 10 or 50 or 100 acres of it, and voila! So much good work for farmers of many scales to do! And once we get good at growing a diversity of beautiful and tasty corns, I’m sure other folks will fall in love with some of them and jump at the opportunity to offer delicious tortillas in their restaurants or taco trucks or home kitchens or what have you.

So to begin this spring we sourced 24 varieties of corn selected for their potential suitability for our area as well as their potential to create a tasty rainbow of fantastic tortillas. We planted them this spring at Earthly Delights Farm, and at the close of our first season we are now in possession of bags and bags of stunningly beautiful kernels, as well as an experience none of us will ever forget. Antonio Ortega, the chef at Diablo and Sons, has been coming out to the farm all season to follow the progress of the corns and to pick some he’s excited to start trialing in the kitchen, and he’s got quite the list he’s ready to try! To read all about our gorgeous contestants and get a sneak peak at Antonio’s in-the-field favorites, follow the journey!