The Humble Mexican Tortilla is a Staple in Outer Space
In the fall of 1979 I found it nearly impossible to find tortillas in New York City. But today tortillas are ubiquitous. Heck, tortillas have even made their way into outer space. De veras. I ain’t lyin’.
It’s just another indication of the broad and unstoppable Mexicanization and Latinization of American socio-cultural reality. Marketing statistics tell us, for example, that salsa – in all its permutations – now outsells ketchup in the Good Ole USA. (Maybe that should be olé these days.) But a quite telling development – and one that causes me no end of amusement – is the fact that the tortilla is nudging old fashioned sandwich bread off the shelves in U.S. grocery stores and that the tortilla has replaced plain old bread in outer space.
The tortilla, you see, doesn’t crumble up the way standard bread does. Crumbs in a sterile, weightless environment, such as on the late lamented space shuttle and currently in the International Space Station, are bad news. Crumbs can gum up the works in space. Tiny crumbs can disable equipment and even cause breathing problems for astronauts as the crumbs float around cabin. They can be inadvertently inhaled, damaging the lungs. The alternative: the tortilla.
I’m a Chicano, born and bred in L.A. In 1979 I moved to the Big Manzana in order to attend graduate school at Columbia University. Once I settled in I started hunting for Mexican food. It may be hard to believe these days, but Mexican food was as scarce as mexicanos at a Sheriff Joe Arpaio re-election rally. (America’s toughest fascist.) There weren’t many Mexicans in New York back then. The Latins from Manhattan back then were, of course, mostly Puerto Ricans. Dominicans and Colombians were starting to show up in significant numbers. (Today Mexicans are plentiful in the Big Apple.)
Puerto Ricans, of course, are United States citizens, whether born on the isla or on the mainland. Dominicans who were rounded up in one of the many migra raids that went on routinely back then would desperately protest to the INS: “I’m Puerto Rican, let me go.”
So, as I cruised the markets and corner bodegas, I discovered that Mexican food – from chiles to tortillas – was as rare as vegetarians at a puerco con chile colorado tamalada. Basic flour tortillas, the kind mexicanos from northern Mexico (and their U.S.-born Chicano progeny) are accustomed to and which are a mainstay of meals and of life, were nowhere to be found. Instead, I stumbled onto something that almost caused me to faint from amazement. De veras. In some stores I actually found corn tortillas in a can! Like sardines. Or canned ham. I ain’t lyin’.
Things have changed. Oh, how they’ve changed. You can readily buy Mexican food in New York cities, and Mexican restaurants abound.
Tortillas are up in outer space. Only one Mexican has made it to space, but tortillas went with him. And now tortillas are a mainstay in space. The International Space Station routinely serves flour tortillas instead of bread – because of that crumble factor. You see, crumbs can be hazardous to the health of astronauts and their equipment. Little crumbs can clog the air passages of astronauts. Crumbs can get sucked into delicate equipment and ruin things. Tortillas don’t crumble that way. Tortillas are safer (and tastier too by my reckoning, but that aspect is a bit beside the point here, I concede). That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, ese.
An official statement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration confirms that tortillas have their valuable place in space: “NASA has used flour tortillas on the space shuttle since the 1980s. These special tortillas are designed to take the place of crumbly bread.” The statement continues: “Tortillas work great and are a favorite with the astronauts. And …on the ISS, they still taste good after being stored for up to 18 months! Add some picante sauce and hot sauce, and you’ve created fajitas, one of the astronauts’ favorite meals.” So there.
It all began with Mexican astronaut Rodolfo Neri Vela. So far, he is the first and only Mexican to fly high in space. (There is a Chicana astronaut on the NASA team but she hasn’t blasted off yet; and with the Space Shuttle being history, it’s unknown when she’ll be part of a“personed” space mission.) As Latino magazine noted, Neri Vela requested tortillas for his Space Shuttle mission in 1985. NASA accommodated him and culinary history was made. The “non crumbliness” of the tortilla made it a mainstay in space. Right now, they’re in the pantry in the International Space Station. (Can’t put butter on ‘em though – making it impossible to create the Chicano kids’ equivalent of peanut butter and jelly type comfort food.) Ni modo.
A few years ago the august New York Times noted another mini milestone: the first burrito in space. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield made a makeshift burrito on the ISS. He used a slathering of irradiated black beans and little chunks of dehydrated beef plus squirts of a hot sauce to (very carefully) fashion what could be generously called a Mexican burrito. Much of the stuff in space that passes for food has to be squeezed from packages that look like overfed toothpaste tubes. Some food items come in sealed plastic “baggies.” The concoction Hadfield cobbled would not win any prizes at the Cordon Bleu, but it turned out to be a serviceable pseudo “burrito”. But more to the point, it shows that the humble tortilla was part of an interstellar “first step for a man, and a (modest) leap for mankind.”
All of which reminds me of something that’s rather an aside from the tortilla in space theme, but which always amuses me when I think about it. We all know Neil Armstrong’s iconic, historical utterance when he stepped off the ladder of the lunar lander and onto the surface of the moon. It was a historic day in 1969, which those of us old enough to remember will never forget. But that famous utterance is actually misquoted.
History books and documentaries tell us he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Great quote. But Armstrong himself later conceded that that is NOT exactly what he said. (And he had prepared for that landmark moment for some time.) He actually said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The article “a” was somehow garbled in the live audio transmission from the moon to Earth. Ni modo. This was way before Skype and the Star Trek-like technologies we all take for granted today. (Amuse your friends at your next cocktail party with that story.)
The big point is, tortillas are in outer space! So, next time you thoughtlessly and hurriedly grab a tortilla for a meal or a snack, stop and think a bit. Hey, tortillas are important up in space. Show a little respect for your tortilla.
Luís Torres, a regular contributor to Latinopia, is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.”
Tortilla and bread photos and tortilla astrophotographs shot and copyrighted by Jesús Salvador Treviño. All other photos in this blog are in the public domain.