Charles Fletcher Lummis, America’s first critic of English-language tortillas

As the decades pass, fewer and fewer people in Southern California remember Charles Fletcher Lummis, and I don’t really blame them. I mean, the quick biography of his life – a midwestern white man in the late 1800s falls in love with southwestern and Mexican culture after taking a road trip, takes on the trappings of a Spanish don, helps save California’s missions from an obsolescence they might have deserved, fetishizes indigenous peoples to the point of creating a museum to showcase their ‘artifacts’ – it looks like a modern Highland Park hipster ready to be canceled.

But, of course, Lummis was a much more complex and ultimately worthy guy whose exploits and efforts are legendary among Angeleno antique dealers. His curiosity touched on everything from the Los Angeles Public Library, where he began his famous autograph collection, to the rare wax cylinder recordings of Californian and Native American songs that no one else has ever bothered to collect. .

I also respect Lummis as the first American champion of Mexican cuisine in the United States, at a time when the rest of the country still viewed the cuisine as little better than badly seasoned sulfur. You can find this full story in my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. But for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the obvious:

Tortillas.

They made frequent and different cameos in his writings during his long career. In his journals In the West and The Land of the Sun, tortillas have appeared in stories about food, yes, but also in Pima Indian nursery tales, in short fiction, and in the background of the many parties he threw and attended. His The Landmarks Club Cookbooka 1903 collection of recipes published as part of a fundraiser to help repair the missions and which includes some of the earliest recipes for Mexican cooking in English, featured a photo of a will wiggle working with his rolling pin in front of the title page, with the caption “The Tortilla Maker”.

But Lummis’ finest tortilla prose came from the 142-day walking trip he took from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in the fall of 1884 to 1885, a walk where he went from believing stereotypes about Mexicans to as diabolical “greasers” to him passing the time. rest of his life telling Americans that Mexicans were better than them.

The transformation was extraordinary – and proof of the healing power of tortillas.

At the beginning of his diaries, that the Los Angeles Times published weekly as they waited for Lummis to show up and take on his new role as city editor, he admitted to disliking Mexicans at all. In La Veta, Colorado, he first encountered many Mexicans — “greasers, as they call them here,” Lummis wrote, adding, “Even a coyote won’t touch a dead greaser, the flesh is so seasoned with red pepper that they burrow into their food screaming profusely.”

But by the time he entered New Mexico, his perspective on Mexicans and their food had changed.

“Mexicans”, he felt, “rather neglect white people, who are all doing… A Mexican, on the other hand, will ‘split’ his only tortilla and blanket with any foreigner, and will never take a dime.”

Tortillas appeared a few days later when he reached the town of Alcalde. At this point, Lummis felt comfortable enough to say to an innkeeper in broken English, “Da me tortilla, señor [Give me tortilla, sir].” To his audience in Los Angeles, Lummis wrote:

You may not know what a tortilla is. It’s a thin sheet of unleavened bread, baked in a pan, indestructible like leather, but very good to eat as well. The word is pronounced torteeah – the Spanish ‘ll’ is pronounced like the French ditto.

Months later, on March 8, 1885, the LA Time published his dispatch near Tijeras, New Mexico. Lummis revealed how he asked a New Mexico native “in a wholesale assassination of Spanish” that he was hungry. Out came chili con carne, chili colorado and tortillas, which he described as “wonderfully good…In every other place I’ve seen tortillas cooked like pancakes, and although they are “heavy enough” they are usually quite dry, but these Carnuel tortillas are of a different architectural style.

The dispatch went on to describe a woman making tortillas, from grabbing a ball of flour masa, rolling it out, then stretching out the masa and putting the disc in a pan of fat. “When it’s done,” Lummis said of these tortillas, “they’re good enough for a king. I can’t remember anything better in that line except the big red donuts I used to from stealing from my grandmother’s pantry some 20 years ago.”

He remembered this meal years later in his 1892 tome, A tramp across the continent, who collected his road trip stories as well as new insights. About that first time he ate chili colorado, he admitted, “My mouth and throat were consumed by living fire and my stomach was a boiling pit of torture.”

After the meal, Lummis said he felt “fully convinced that those ‘perfidious Mexicans’ had murdered me by quick poison – for I had very ignorant and stupid notions about Mexicans at the time, such as the most of us learn it from superficial travelers who don’t know about one of the nicest breeds in the world.”

But Lummis must have had much better tortillas between that 1885 meal and the time he published A tramp across the continent. Tortillas he originally described as “wonderfully good”? Eight years later, he now remembered them as “leads”.