Off the Clock—Carlos Salgado on the fight to preserve Mexican heirloom corn

Salgado fell in love with the landrace corn of his heritage—and then it came under attack.

September 18, 2015 ● 5 min read

As told to Cassandra Landry.

My strong feelings about corn from Mexico are highly influenced by my personal experiences as the son of Mexican immigrants. 

I come from a family of restaurateurs, and choosing to cook Mexican food, specifically in the United States, is very much a part of my identity.  

Corn is the most fundamentally important ingredient that we have to work with in Mexican cuisine. It's more important than chile, it's more important than pork. As a mature cook now considering my own restaurant and looking back, not just in my experiences in California cuisine, but in my family's experiences in Mexican food, I saw an obvious gap. I knew instinctively, just based on my schooling as a chef, and the cultural memory that I had of being in Mexico, that not all tortillas and not all masa—and by extension, not all corn—were the same.  

So as we set out to create a Mexican restaurant, the first thing for us to look at was the origin of the corn. If we were going to be using sustainable meats, if we were going to be using organic farmer's market produce and continue the traditions I learned from my mentors, the origin of the corn was equally important.  

At the time, non-GMO, organic, and/or heirloom corn was pretty much unheard of in the United States. There were a few people beginning to produce with knowledge about heirloom varieties—regional ones being grown throughout Mexico—and then fewer people still that had the ability to bring it from Mexico into the U.S.  

When we finally received our sample batches, we went to great lengths to figure out how to cook it just right. Cooking it was this cloud of uncertainty, because broadly speaking, the process of making tortillas around the world is really tuned to commodity GMO corn. It all grows the same, it dries the same, and it cooks the same. 

We brought it back to my dad's restaurant. We cooked our first tortilla, and I handed it immediately to my father, who just took one whiff of it and was visibly moved. The aroma of that tortilla was something that immediately took him back four or five decades to the community that he grew up in.  

As a chef, there are very few times in your life when you get to experience an ingredient that's so perfect. Not only is it agriculturally more responsible, but visually, it's infinitely more beautiful. The flavor and the aroma were profoundly better than anything we'd ever tasted before.

Just as we were discovering this, the ban on GMO crops in Mexico was beginning to unravel. Seemingly out of nowhere, they decided to lift the ban, which for us, obviously endangers the future of these incredible heirloom grains that we just fell in love with. At a time when Mexican food is enjoying so much prominence (look at Rene Redzepi saying that the tacos al pastor in Mexico City changed his life), our fear, which we share with a lot of contemporary Mexican chefs, is that heirloom corn in Mexico may die before it's really rediscovered.

Products from Mexico, whether they be people, or wine, or water, or music, are generally seen in a particular way. Mexican food has always been seen, until this recent glamorization of Mexican culture in the United States, as being cheap. A fifty-cent taco on the street corner is something that we almost fetishize—the cheap, working-class taco. Somehow, Americans have decided that if a taco is priced at more than a dollar, then it's bougie, or inauthentic. I knew that this was something that would lift up the foundation of Mexican food in the United States. I knew that it was an ingredient that was worthy of resting underneath the best produce and meats and fish that we had access to in California.

Great culinary minds understand the importance of heirloom varieties, the pleasures that different varieties bring to the plate. Mature chefs know that great food comes from great ingredients, and I think the thing that a greater number of chefs can really align on is the question of diversity in our food crops. Regardless of how you feel about the science, preserving the richness of the spectrum of the varieties is really the most important idea here. I was lucky enough to really learn how to cook professionally in the Bay Area. I was exposed to real agriculture, the farmer’s market culture, and this community of people that were so passionate about food. I experienced, for the first time, a hundred different types of thyme or mint growing and 40 different varieties of tomato at the market, and 20 different varieties of potato at peak season, and varieties of apples or melons or peaches that I'd never seen before.            

It was this whole new world of pleasure that could be derived from food, from products of the earth. I immediately latched onto it. However, until I came across an ingredient that was so important to my cultural identity and to my identity as a chef, and until it came under threat…it wasn't until that combination of factors happened to me that I became so passionate about it.  

I don't think that an engineered seed would be equivalent. Maybe that's an emotional reaction to the imperfection and spontaneity of nature being removed from the equation. I think we all have a sense that great pleasures and great surprises come out of these natural processes. I'm a former engineer. I have a very scientific mind; I trust in science. While seed companies could no doubt engineer something...even if they are substantially equivalent in the kitchen and on the plate, by their very nature they cannot be equivalent in terms of the effect that they have on agricultural communities.  

Patented seeds, engineered pesticide-resistant crops and proprietary fertilizer-driven crops consolidate the agricultural market. That's just a fact. And I feel that there's a great deal of potential prosperity and success for the population of Mexico if they are allowed to undergo an agricultural revolution based on their contribution.  

There's an alarming number of people who don't really care where their food comes from. You're taking life from the environment and you're offering it to other people, which is this incredibly intimate gesture. To not have a focused awareness or strategy around the types of foods that you pick and where you get them and how they're made, misses a large part of the point.  Chefs who see themselves as "auteurs," as just being creators, and put the focus on themselves are perhaps missing a big part of their responsibility.            

If you put the focus on preserving interesting, highly-pleasurable foods and protecting them from the threat of industrialization and consolidation, then I think it's easier to have a discussion about the value of these things. I’d like to see Mexico and the United States create an ever-growing market for heirloom and artisan goods that come out of Mexico. We have AOC and DOC denominations for traditional cheeses and wines and even chile peppers that grow in Europe, but we don't have the same for this rich collection of foods that come out of Mexico.  

We're very much attempting to add weight to the movement in Mexico, an independent expression of support for the Colectivo Mexicano de Cocina, which is essentially the Mexican Culinary Collective. When I saw that there was virtually no coverage in the U.S. press or in the English language press, I felt a responsibility to try and translate the issue to a larger audience, to mirror the support of some of the most important and well-known and progressive restaurants in Mexico. I asked the chefs in my circle to learn about it and then, if they chose, lend their voices.

I discovered these heirloom corns from Mexico at a time when the question of the cultural value and significance of a tortilla was especially important to me, as I set off to open a Mexican restaurant. But if you feel, like many of us do, that food is really the central focus of our lives, then it's difficult to imagine being a chef and not participating in issues of agriculture and the origin of our foods and the legal classifications and definitions of our food.

The term “activist chef” is oxymoronic. 

Carlos Salgado is the chef-owner of Taco María in Costa Mesa, Ca. He is leading the charge of English-speaking chefs all over the globe who have thrown their support behind saving heirloom corn in Mexico. To learn more, click here. | Original photo of Salgado via Anne Watson Photography