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Masa, the key to tortillas and tamales, inspires an award-winning documentary series

The documentary series <em>Masienda Presents </em>won a 2023 James Beard award. The series celebrates masa and the communities who cook with it.
Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
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Masienda
The documentary series Masienda Presents won a 2023 James Beard award. The series celebrates masa and the communities who cook with it.

Updated June 9, 2023 at 4:29 PM ET

Author Jorge Gaviria considers masa – dough made from stone-ground corn – to be one of the greatest human achievements, up there with taming fire and inventing the wheel. His enthusiasm for the humble ingredient has led to his team winning a top culinary prize.

On Jun. 3, Gaviria and his colleagues won a 2023 James Beard award for their YouTube documentary series celebrating masa and the communities who cook with it.

Masienda Presents shows how ranchers, home cooks and professional chefs from around the world all use this ancient staple.

Masa is at the foundation of many Latin American cuisines. It takes on many different shapes and textures, allowing it to be used for the flat disks of tortillas, the thick cases of tamales, and many other foods.

"What I loved about the series was that everything really did hit on a different facet of identity," Gaviria said. "Mexican-American identity, Mexican identity, Latin identity at large."

Masa and identity

In the first episode, Arturo Enciso talks about Gusto Bread, the artisanal bakery he owns with Ana Belén Salatino in Long Beach, California. They're known for using masa in bread and pastries.

"Having baked all these European-style breads, I still felt like 'OK well that doesn't translate to like my other identity, my true identity," Enciso says.

Another episode follows Tony Ortiz on their grandparents' Northern California ranch as they cook lamb birria in an outdoor oven.

"When I'm in the kitchen with my grandmother, things that I am making, for me, they feel more soft," Ortiz says. "Then when I'm cooking with my grandfather it's a little bit more intense...I've had to learn how to, like, exist in those two spaces — feminine and masculine — as a queer person."

After hours of cooking, the Ortiz family come together and serve the birria on fresh, warm tortillas.

Why masa? Why now?

According to Gaviria, tortillas sell more, pound for pound, than hamburger buns.

He founded his company Masienda in 2014, supplying cooks with masa ingredients and kitchen tools. In addition to Masienda Presents, its YouTube channel has cooking tutorials and stories about the craftspeople behind Masienda's products.

Gaviria previously worked at farms and high-end restaurants, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

"And as I started to really kind of dive deeper into the foods that I loved, I realized that they lacked the same kind of representation that, you know, French and New American food had in the culinary canon," Gaviria said. "I wanted to see, you know, rice and beans elevated in a way, and celebrated for just the deliciousness and, you know, the comfort that they provide."

For a taste of that deliciousness, he has some advice.

"If you have a taco," Gaviria said, "consider maybe making that tortilla from scratch."

And a great tortilla, he says, starts with masa.

The digital version of this story was edited by Lisa Lambert. The broadcast version was edited by Reena Advani.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Milton Guevara