MacArthur genius winner Natalia Molina is our Tortilla Tournament guest judge

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Author and professor Natalia Molina is this year’s guest for the 2022 #TortillaTournament finale. Photo courtesy of Natalia Molina.

Every year, we invite a guest judge to be the tiebreaker in our #TortillaTournament finale (which is this Sunday, Oct. 16, at Smorgasburg LA from noon-3 p.m. — you RSVP’d already, right?). This year, we’re delighted to announce that Natalia Molina, USC professor and MacArthur genius winner for her essential work on race and class in Los Angeles, will be our mera mera!

She’s a brilliant, kind public intellectual — and a voracious foodie. Her new book, “A Place at the Nayarit,” tells the story of her grandmother’s Mexican restaurant, which offered comfort and community to Echo Park at a time it was a working class enclave instead of the whatever-it-is it is today. In the following short essay, Profe Natalia offers some tortilla thoughts!

PS, I had originally asked Profe Natalia to answer some simple questions. Instead, she offered us this beautiful essay. Esa Profe!


Natalia Molina stands in front of her family’s restaurant Nayarit in Echo Park. Photo courtesy of Natalia Molina. 

In almost every interview I did for my book, everyone mentioned my grandmother's tortillas. They would make the flour tortillas by hand fresh every day.

While my grandmother prided herself on making regional dishes she also catered to an American audience, and so these were flour tortillas, which are not native to our state of Nayarit.

Maybe it's because I grew up eating these flour tortillas that I, too, still prefer them, or maybe I'm Americanized. But one of my favorite snacks as a kid was just going to the restaurant, heat up a tortilla, open an ice-cold, hard rectangular butter pack, and rub it slowly in circles on the warm tortilla as I watched it melt and then added a pinch of salt. And repeated 1 or 2 more times. As I got older and friends came over to my home, one of them came up with a brilliant idea to fold the tortilla in half and then half again, thus forming a triangle shape so that the butter pooled at the bottom, like the chocolate did a ice cream drumstick, another favorite. That butter cone was the perfect last bite.

I would also go over to my friend's house. They were from Durango, and so they always had corn tortillas, and we would crisp them over an open flame and use them to scoop up scrambled eggs and weenies (chopped hot dogs). If we were in a rush, then we would just jab a fork into the weenie, roast that over the open burner and squeeze a bit of ketchup on it, a Chicanx after-school snack.

In the 1990s, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I longed for these snacks as we did not have Mexican restaurants or stores in Ann Arbor. So we went to Ypsilanti and I'm forgetting the name of it now, but there was a woman from Guadalajara who owned and operated a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, La Fiesta. The food was superb. For daily provisions, we would go into Detroit every couple of months and get tortillas and other provisions, especially if we spent a holiday we were used to spending with our families at school, like Easter.

But mainly, we would bring tortillas back to Ann Arbor when we would return from visiting home. We’d come back with our suitcases loaded, like when we visited our families in Mexico carrying big suitcases that were bigger and almost as heavy as us, overpacked with gifts, See’s candy, clothing, knock-off Barbies that we bought in the callejones (allys) in downtown LA. Once emptied, those same suitcases would then be filled by our families with of course, tortillas, but also Mexican candies, Huichol-beaded everything (keychains, bracelets, earrings, figurines) and things that you aren't supposed to bring due to customs restrictions, like dried shrimp, cheeses and tamales. 

On return to Ann Arbor, our suitcases were loaded with tortillas, chiles and also Trader Joe’s items; if it was after Christmas, tamales and we would host tamaladas to see whose family made the best tamales (no one could convince you yours weren’t the best). Sometimes, we also brought hojas to make tamales with our friends. My best friend Estevan from New Mexico would bring a cooler with frozen lamb from his dad's ranch in northern New Mexico that they'd slaughtered and he’d make the most delicious gamey lamb stew with green chilies that we would scoop us with tortillas I brought. We would freeze our fresh tortillas and they would sustain us through the long, grey, cold, icy winters that those us from Aztlán were unfamiliar with.

One of my favorite gifts to give is tortillas. We go to San Diego a few times a year since we lived there while I taught at UC San Diego for 17 years. And we time our trip to coincide with lunch on the way there. We stop at Burritos La Palma in El Monte and try to get there early enough to get their tortillas since they sell out. I give them to someone who doesn't know me as well, it seems like a strange gift, such as the last time I gave them to my friend who took care of our terrier while we were away. 

By that evening, she had texted me, “Those are the best tortillas. Thank you!”

Read more: Nourishing a community: How a family restaurant built a legacy in Echo Park