Masa, mezcal reflect Mexico’s culinary craft

Tortillas and agave spirits are mainstays of Mexican cuisine, and one Washington, D.C., eatery has made it its mission to highlight their deep roots within Mexican culture. The team behind Espita Mezcaleria approaches food as a cultural cornerstone rather than a commodity. The restaurant, which opened in 2016, focuses on sustainability, human rights and authenticity when sourcing its range of mezcals and the corn used to make the masa for its tortillas and other menu items.

Co-owner Kelly Phillips and Beverage Director Megan Barnes discussed the principles that shape Espita’s supply chain and how they highlight the importance of masa and mezcal to Mexican culture in a panel discussion at the restaurant earlier this month.

“To us, they are a great example of how women are influencing our food culture, especially in the D.C. area,” said Ariel Pasternak, co-founder of Pineapple Collaborative, which hosted the event. “The restaurant concept is obviously rooted in masa and mezcal...and I think those are two products that Americans enjoy, yet we have a lot more to learn about the stories behind those two products, the heritage of Mexico, the people who grow the corn or grow the agave,” she said.

Pasternak founded Pineapple Collaborative in Washington, D.C., in 2015 with a mission of supporting and celebrating women who work in food. The company, which has expanded to New York City and will launch in San Francisco next month, highlights the work of women in food through its blog, podcast, newsletter and events such as the Of Masa & Mezcal discussion at Espita, which also included a mezcal tasting and samples from the restaurant’s menu.

When assembling the panel, Pasternak and Pineapple co-founder Atara Bernstein wanted to make sure the discussion included some of the women who work behind the scenes to bring masa and mezcal products to Espita.

“We’ve been to a lot of events that definitely celebrated particular cuinses and different regions of the world where the cuisine was coming from, but we thought it was really important to get the perspective of the women who actually interact with those ingredients every day,” Bernstein said.

One of those women is Danielle Dahlin, vice president of operations at Masienda, which supplies the Mexican heritage corn used at Espita. Once the corn arrives at the restaurant, masa cook Yesenia Neri Diaz works her magic turning it into masa through a process called nixtamalization.

Phillips said Diaz is “one of the hardest working people at Espita,” and arrives at the restaurant before 6am to begin soaking corn and getting it ready to grind into the masa that is used to create tortillas, chips, tamales and tlayudas. The skill is one she learned at the age of 9 or 10 while growing up in Mexico, Diaz said in Spanish to an Espita hostess, who acted as a translator.

Espita uses four different varieties of Mexican heirloom corn, each of which has its own unique color and flavor. Diaz said the white and yellow varieties are more hardy and work best for chips and tortillas, while the blue and red types are more moldable and better suited to tamales.

Four colors of corn is a much bigger selection than most US restaurants offer, but only a small sample of the 59 corn varieties that grow in Mexico, Dahlin said. Masienda focuses on impact-based sourcing and works with family farms in Mexico to source the corn it sells to foodservice operators and uses in its line of tortillas, which Pineapple featured as its first Pantry Pick. Half of the farmers who supply corn to Masienda are women, Dahlin said, which drew enthusiastic applause from the event’s largely female audience.

The mezcal tasting portion of the event featured three mezcals from brands that are owned or produced by women. “Women have been involved in the mezcal making process since it came about,” Barnes said, but explained that most are not compensated fairly for their work, and oftentimes the money goes to the men in their families. Yola Mezcal, one of the brands stocked at Espita, makes sure its women workers have control of their paychecks, Barnes said.

“We’re really particular about the brands we bring into Espita. You’ll notice that we don’t have the largest list of mezcal but we definitely have, I think, one of the best mezcal lists in the city,” she said. Barnes travels to Mexico often, in part to participate in efforts led by the Tequila Interchange Project. The non-profit organization works to preserve traditional and sustainable practices and advocate for workers’ rights in the agave spirits industry.

As the popularity of agave spirits and Mexican heirloom corn grows in the US, demand for Mexican imports is increasing. “We need to be careful about how we grow these categories, because we don’t want to run through all of the agaves, we don’t want to create shortages. We want to consume responsibly,” Phillips said. Espita sources its corn and mezcal with this in mind, and works to communicate the importance of transparency and ethical sourcing to its clientele. Barnes said it is crucial consider the “real price of agave” when choosing agave spirits brands, and champions brands that value sustainability and support their workers and the local community.

Brands that take the ethical and environmental high road often come at a higher price, which many US consumers aren’t accustomed to paying for Mexican and other Latin American cuisines. Barnes said the lack of understanding about the value of these products is something she’s working to overcome at Espita. “Half of our bad Yelp reviews are because people are like, ‘why am I spending so much money on tacos?’” she said. “They’re used to spending less money on Mexican food, and what they don’t realize is there is this long process that goes into making the tortillas, and that’s where the money is going.”

Phillips agreed, explaining that Espita imports, “all of our corn, chilies, mezcal. There is a lot of labor going into these products -- we’re making mole that has 30 or 40 ingredients...everything is handmade. So we’re trying to change the idea that Mexican food has to be something that’s inexpensive.”

For Phillips and her team, serving delicious Mexican food is only part of what Espita does. Telling the stories of the farmers, cooks and others who make it possible is just as important, a sentiment Pasternak echoed in an interview before the event. “This isn’t just about tacos and margaritas. This is about such rich history, tradition, and people and culture,” she said.

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