In 1809, “A Dictonary , Spanish and English, and English and Spanish”, defined tortilla simply as “a little cake”.
“Tortillas, which are a sort of cake made of Indian corn, are a general article of sustenance in Mexico. They were prepared in precisely the same way as at present before the conquest of that country. The maize, of which the tortillas are composed, is first parboiled, to cleanse and soften the grain, and then, in a quantity sufficient for the day’s consumption, is left to cool. For the purpose of crushing or mashing the maize, the women have a large square block of black lava, or basalt, about two feet in length and sixteen inches broad, which stands on two, three, or four legs, so arranged as to give it a gentle slope. There is a very slightly-elevated rim on either side, and the great solidity and weight keep the stone steady, while the operator bruizes [sic] the maize with a long stone, not unlike a rolling pin, which is held at each end, and so moved that it crushes the grain to paste, and at the same time pushes it down to a bowl placed ready to receive it. This process is gone through once, twice, or more, according to the fineness required; and, where great care is taken it is passed through a fine sieve. A lump of this paste is then taken, and patted skillfully between the hands until it becomes as thin as a light pancake; and the great art consists in thus flattening it out without breaking the edges. The cake is then laid on a smooth plate of iron or flat earthenware, which is placed over some charcoal or wood embers, and kept at a certain heat; here, first one, and then the other side of the tortilla, receives a toasting, and great care is taken that it should not be at all browned. The grand object in the latter part of the process is to serve up the tortillas hot and hot, as fast as possible, in a clean napkin; and a slow eater who begins his first tortilla, will find twenty or thirty piled up in a smoking heap at his elbow, long before he has made any progress with his dinner. The making of tortillas is so important an art, that in the houses of respectable people a woman, called from her office “tortillera,” is kept for this express purpose; and it sounds very oddly to the ear of a stranger, during meal-times, to hear the rapid patting and slapping which goes forward in the cooking-place until all demands are satisfied.” – “The Young Gentleman’s Book”. 1832. London.
Church noted the presence of someone to bake tortillas during a meal so that they were always hot and fresh. “When stale, the tortilla not only loses its elasticity, but becomes hard, dry, and tasteless as a chip”. He described the “chile Colorado” referred to earlier as a sauce of red pepper and tomatoes cooked with a little lard, and sometimes with jerked meat and described the manner of smearing this paste between two tortillas and rolling them into a thick round sandwich. Church, William Conant. “The Galaxy”. June 1868.
Thomas Jefferson Green, likewise, referred to the tortilla as, “a cake of bread made of Indian corn, about the thickness of upper leather, and quite as pliant”. He wrote that it served the Mexicans as bread and also as knife, fork and spoon, the eater using his thumb and first two fingers to form a spoon shape with which food was dipped up and placed in the mouth. “At every dip the spoon shape disappears”, or was eaten and a new piece used for the next bite. – “Journal of the Texian Expedition Against Mier”. New York. 1845.
Edward Thomas Stevens described the difference in texture of tortillas made in Mexico and those made in Central America. Taylor described the former as “soft and leathery” whereas Stevens found those made in Nicaragua “hot and crisp”. Brantz Mayer described Mexican tortillas as, “tough buckskin-like victuals”. Stevens noted that tortillas could be purchased on the street from an Indian woman and chile to go in it from another, but his use of the word “Indian” referred to native peoples of Central America and not native people of the U.S. “ Flint Chips: A Guide to Pre-historic Archaeology”. London. 1870.
No references were found of natives in the U.S. making tortillas. James Henry Salisbury noted they boiled the maize and ate it with fish or venison “instead of bread”. – “History and Chemical Investigation of Maize, Or Indian Corn”. Albny. 1849.
Carver penned an excellent description of Indian bread which is vastly different from Mexican tortillas. “Among this people [Indians of North America] I ate of a very uncommon kind of bread. The Indians, in general, use but little of this nutritious food: whilst their corn is in the milk, as they term it, that is, just before it begins to ripen, they slice off the kernels from the cob to which they grow, and knead them into a paste. This they are enabled to do without the addition of any liquid, by the milk that flows from them; and when it is effected, they parcel it out into cakes, and enclosing them in leaves of the basswood tree, place them in hot embers, where they are soon baked. And better flavored bread I never ate in any country”. – Carver, Jonathan, Capt. “Three Years Travels Throughout the Interior Parts of North America”. Charlestowne. 1802.
Bailey spoke of savages from the Rocky Mountains who came down to St. Charles who had never eaten bread prior to their encounter with the whites. Napier, James Bailey. “Sketches of Indian Character”. 1841.
Joseph Taylor wrote that the bread of New England Indians and, “many other parts of America” was made of maize and called “weachin”. It seems doubtful he saw them eat much bread as he went on to say they, “boiled it whole in water, till it swelled and became tender, and then they fed on it, either alone, or eat it with their fish and venison, instead of bread”. – “The Wonder of Trees, Plants, and Shrubs Recorded in Anecdotes or A Description of Their Wonderful Properties…” London. 1823.
In a treatise published in 1841, is found mention of North American Indians pounding maize to make a, “sort of cake”, which they bake by means of hot cinders. This serves them, and, indeed occasionally the Anglo Americans, as a substitute for loaf or leavened bread…” There was no mention of flattening it as one would with a tortilla. – “The Guide to Trade: The Baker Including Bread and Fancy Baking”.
Let’s touch on the modern day Native American fry bread before we go our separate ways. This food is passed off as authentic at practically every re-enactment period, however, there is no indication that this was made prior to the reservation period. It was produced from the limited supplies they received in an effort to produce as much food as possible from as little as possible.
“Fried bread” referred to more than one product. Throughout the 19th century there are numerous mentions of frying bread, for a process in which bread was diced, or cut it into fanciful shapes, and browned in butter to serve with soup. Bread crumbs were prepared in a similar manner to serve on top of various dishes. Recipes for French toast were also sometimes titled Fried Bread in 19th century cookery books.
A recipe for Fried Bread similar to modern Navajo fried bread was published in Mrs. Chadwick’s “Home Cookery: A Collection of Tried Receipts, Both Foreign and Domestic” in 1853, but the index contained nothing that might be construed as Native American food. It is this author’s belief that the fried bread recipe was copied from other books published during that time on East Indian food, thus the word “foreign” in the title.
Fried bread is mentioned five times in “Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book”, 1860, however this book was certainly written about the country India and not North American Indians.
The following was penned by Mrs. Marcus Whitman who accompanied her missionary husband on his travels and to the Oregon territory. “Our dinner consisted of dry buffalo meat, turnips, and fried bread which was a luxury. Mountain bread is simply coarse flour and water mixed and roasted or fried in buffalo grease.” Those lines were most likely written in 1843 when Whitman led the first large group of wagons west from Fort Hall in southeastern Idaho because his wife did say the meal in question was taken at Fort Hall. She went on to elaborate on the fort’s builder, appearance, and history. Whitman died in 1847. – Humphreys, Mary Gay. “Missionary Explorers Among the American Indians”. 1913. NY.
Assumptions are not acceptable proof of an item’s history so one must ask if the inhabitants of Fort Hall who served the dinner were preparing foods they’d seen Indians in the area making or also just making what they could from supplies on hand.
Blissful Meals, I leave you with the following recipes to tempt you in your kitchen endeavors. – Thehistoricfoodie, aka, Vickie Brady. ©
TO FRY BREAD TO SERVE WITH SOUP. – Acton, Eliza. “Modern Cookery in all its Branches”. 1858. Cut some slices a quarter-inch thick, from a stale loaf; pare off the crust, and divide the bread into dice, or cut it with a deep paste-cutter into any other form. For half a pound of bread put two ounces of the best butter into a frying-pan, and when it is quite melted, add the bread; keep it turned, over a gentle fire, until it is equally coloured to a very pale brown, then drain it from the butter, and dry it on a soft cloth, or a sheet of paper placed before a clear fire, upon a dish, or on a sieve reversed.
FRIED BREAD, VERY NICE. Mrs. Chadwick. Make a sour-milk cake, put in just saleratus enough to foam the milk, then melt a piece of butter the size of an egg in a great spoonful of hot water. Salt to taste. It must only be made just stiff enough to roll out. Fry in lard, as you do symballs.
MRS. HILL’S FRIED BREAD PUDDING. Knight, S. “Tit-Bits”. 1864. One pint of milk, three eggs, a little salt, and flour enough to make a thin batter. Cut a stale (baker’s) loaf in slices; half an hour before using, place the sliced bread in the batter. It must be removed carefully when ready to cook, and fried as griddle cakes; to be eaten with sauce.