A Tortilla is Like Life: Food and Culture in the San Luis Valley of Colorado
by Carole M. Counihan


University of Texas Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-292-71981-1.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/21/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

"My great-aunts used to say that a tortilla is like life. Nothing is ever going to be exactly the way you want it to be. However life is, that is how your tortilla comes out. So however you rolled out your tortilla, maybe it wasn't quite round, but you ate it because you made it." —Monica Taylor on learning to cook from the Latina women in her family

A Tortilla is Like Life is a valuable, imminently readable book that deserves a place beside such currently popular food-centered books as Michael Pollan's The Ominvore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Rather than narrowly focusing on one individual's or one family's food practices and how these relate to overall American food habits, however, author Carole M. Counihan takes a broad look at the foodways of an entire Hispanic community, seen through the revealing lens of women's stories, both contemporary and traditional. A Tortilla is Like Life not only affords us an in-depth understanding of the ways northern Hispanic families have traditionally related to food over the past century, but illustrates the many indispensable roles Mexicanas have played in producing, preserving, and preparing meals and, in a larger sense, the integral relationships of women to food, family, and community.

From 1996 to 2006, Counihan, a professor of Anthropology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, conducted research in the small southern Colorado town of Antonito, collecting food-focussed life stories from nineteen Mexicanas and learning firsthand the foodways, past and present, of this traditional community. Antonito is located in the San Luis Valley, on the northern frontier of what was once New Spain's colonial empire, and is part of what is called the siete condados del norte: the seven predominately Hispanic counties of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Once a thriving, self-sustaining center of local commerce, its population has dropped (at the time of this study) to 872. Residents now shop at a locally-owned supermarket and eat at three restaurants.

Counihan has designed A Tortilla to serve several important purposes. She aims to document the evolution of food traditions in a community ("a repository of Hispanic culture") that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was almost entirely self-sustaining. Area residents grew their own vegetables and fruits, grains, and meats, and supplemented their ample diets with wild-gathered foods and game and seasonal purchases from vendors who brought chiles and fruits from New Mexico. Several fascinating chapters are devoted to women's descriptions of these traditional food practices and the changes in food production and preparation that came about as women moved out of the full-time homemaking and into the workplace. The book not only describes past practices, then, but contemporary practices, as well as the compromises that women have made as their roles in family foodwork have evolved.

Another of Counihan's aims in A Tortilla is the creation of "a polyphonic testimonio." Testimonio is a term for a first-person narrative told by someone who has participated in an event, and has been redefined by Latina feminists to refer to the important responsibility of bearing witness to events and lives that might otherwise be forgotten. In Counihan's construction, A Tortilla is a multi-voiced testimonio composed by women engaging in a communal dialogue about women's relationships to food, place, and people. The result is a rich feast of experience, a wide-ranging chorus of narratives derived from 80 hours of tape-recorded interviews with nineteen women aged thirty-two to ninety-four who bear witness to their own lives and the lives of women they have known. Through Counihan's careful orchestration, the women's stories reveal the many ways they have defined themselves; their feelings about their changing relationships to land and water; their roles in helping to produce, preserve, and prepare food; their participation in family meals, community food sharing, and funeral rituals; and the changes that have come to the community since independent, at-home food production has been replaced by dependence on industrial agriculture and the commercial distribution of canned and frozen foods. Counihan sensitively selects and frames these testimonios with brief, informative introductions and weaves them together to create a multilayered narrative demonstrating the remarkable diversity of the life experiences of these Latinas. Some of the women were community-bound from birth to old age, while others went "out" to obtain their educations or engage in work and then returned to reclaim their place in community. All placed family and community at the center of their lives and saw food as one primary expression of their commitment to both.

One of the things I admire most about this book is the consistent level of detail and specificity, both in the women's narratives and in Counihan's thoughtful commentary. An example, recalled by one of the older women:

Another thing that I remember for Lent, Mother used to cook peas, like split peas, but it was the whole pea, and then make chile caribe [coarse ground red chile] and sopaipillas [fried bread]. That was for Lent when we didn't eat meat. There were split peas, the verdolagas, the spinach, and the sopaipillas, the sopa, the panocha, all that for Lent.

The Spanish terms used by the women to describe food and food processing are defined in an appendix. Another appendix provides a list of healing herbs that were locally grown or gathered. The book's sources are fully documented and there is a complete bibliography.

A Tortilla is Like Life is highly recommended for food history collections, women's studies, Southwest studies, and Latina/Mexicana/Hispanic collections. It is also accessible, entertaining, and instructive for general readers interested in food, foodways, and food history.


Carole M. Counihan is Professor of Anthropology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Around the Tuscan Table: Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Florence and the coeditor of the scholarly journal Food and Foodways. Visit her faculty website.

Check out our interview with the author of A Tortilla is Like Life.



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