In Tezoatlan, tucked away in the Lower Mixtec Mountains of northern Oaxaca, a totopo is something else altogether.
For generations this gigantic, paper thin bread made from freshly ground nixtamal (field corn prepared with slaked lime the way it’s been done for over a thousand years), fresh lard and a pinch of salt, was carried by mule drivers carrying goods to ranches and settlements that seldom made it to a town of any size to buy the basics.
They carried totopos, which look fragile, but are cooked to a point of flexibility that, when reheated on a comal or over an open fire, attain a perfect crisp, crunchy texture that is uniquely satisfying. Along with dried salsas that could be rehydrated with a little water and dried meats made palatable by simmering in the same salsa, plus whatever greens and fresh meats that could be gathered along the trail, the hardy mule drivers ate pretty well without carrying a lot of extra weight.
Tezoatlan’s totopos are a local addiction, part of everyone’s daily diet in this magically beautiful village of the Lower Mixtec. My guy Manuel was born and raised there, in the building where his father had an electric mill used to grind fresh nixtamal carried in by local women daily in five gallon buckets. The mill had stone discs inside which had to be chiseled on a regular basis to make stone ground, whole grain masa for tortillas, tamales and other antojitos and, of course, for totopos.
DOÑA Filiberta is one of two women in Tezoatlan who are still making tototopos, although age and arthritis have slowed her down considerably. Manuel (along with plenty of Tezoatlan’s townspeople, no doubt) has long been concerned about the future of their favorite oversized cracker… but we can all relax after our visit to her kitchen workshop in September when she assured us that her grandaughter is learning the trade and will be taking over this important work.
The photo at the top shows Doña Fili’s old fashioned, thin pottery comales (griddles) upon which her totopos (also shown) bake over a hardwood fire, just as they have always been. The second shot features Doña Fili herself, with the stone metate still used to grind nixtamal. She also has a small stone mill similar to the one Manuel’s father used in the family business, and she still remembers him fondly. She says he was a kind man who always provided hot water for the women to wash their hands on brisk Mixtec mornings.
Mexico’s food traditions are the glue that hold its people together. I hope you can take a trip someday to small town Oaxaca where you will see and taste exactly what I mean!