Tortillas in the time of coronavirus

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Gustavo's Tortilla Tournament is coming back! Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Fein Image

How do you buy and eat tortillas in the time of coronavirus? Very carefully. Because even during the worst economic and medical disaster of our generation, we still need to eat tortillas.

I had traveled to Thousand Oaks, far from my Orange County home, in search of great flour tortillas.

A friend had tipped me off to a restaurant in this wealthy Ventura County city that made them fresh, that made them buttery and puffy and just delicious. There’s still not nearly enough places in Southern California that make great handmade flour tortillas, so off I went on a weekend.

And just as quickly, off I went back to Orange County.

Few of the customers were wearing masks; none of the workers – from the cashier to the cooks to the busboys — were masked. I wasn’t going to expose myself to the danger of contracting coronavirus, let alone the judge in whose bracket this tortilla would end up.

How do you buy and eat tortillas in the time of coronavirus? Very carefully.

In previous years, a combination of myself, judges, and interns picked up samples for all the participants in the #TortillaTournament — but not this time. I refused to subject anyone to any risk they didn’t want to assume by going to grocery stores, or restaurants, or corner shops. 

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"Dear Clients of Talpense 2: To better serve you all, we ask that you enter with masks...take care of yourself, and take care of ourselves, and together we'll make the difference. Thank you for your assistance, and may God bless us. La Talpense 2". Photo by Gustavo Arellano/KCRW

So I picked up all of the tortillas this year — 51 different locations.

Before, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to the preparation or the hygiene of a potential contestant. Tortilla-making by definition must be a sanitary project, from the nixtamalization of the corn to the manufacturing of the actual tortillas (whether by machine or patted out by hand) to its packaging and delivery. Just one dent in the system will ruin it all — and customers notice fast.

The most infamous example in recent Southern California history happened in 2016 at the Amapola Market chain, when a bad batch of corn led to sketchy masa during the winter holidays that left dozens of customers sick and hundreds of them demanding not just their money back, but competent masa.

This #TortillaTournament, I had to ensure my safety and that of my fellow judges.

Everywhere I went, I wore a mask and socially distanced made sure the workers did the same. When I partitioned the tortillas into different Ziploc bags at home, I made sure to wear gloves and keep my mask on. And when I dropped them off to my fellow judges, I made sure to deliver and greet them from whatever distance made them comfortable.

So far, coronavirus has spared us. But it hasn’t spared tortillas. 

We did the first two round of judging in early July, in the fear that further shutdowns would render the #TortillaTournament impossible to conduct due to government-mandated shutdowns or the ravages of the economy.

A drop in sales forced some tortillerías to cut their production schedule. Hours for most restaurants have been reduced and rarely reflect what’s posted online. Some places I wanted to include have yet to reopen. And in one case, as ustedes will see, a winning restaurant closed as it dominated the competition.

There was general, understandable concern among KCRW staff whether we should do the #TortillaTournament this year — not just because we wouldn’t have a live finale, but also due to the whole coronavirus thing. Did we really want to tell listeners and members to venture out across Southern California and potentially expose themselves to the pandemic?

But we eventually decided to go on with it, not just because we didn’t want to lose momentum on a good thing, but especially because local businesses need us now more than ever.

All of the contestants passed my safety tests, so I urge you to visit as many of the good ones as possible. 

Because even during the worst economic and medical disaster of our generation, we still need to eat tortillas.

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