Modern-day food production has myriad issues associated with it: animal abuse, farm-worker maltreatment, unfair trade agreements, pollution, negative soil impact from monoculture, GMOs…the list goes on and on. So it’s not surprise that chefs and industry folk are frequently talking about how to lessen their toll. Fonda (434 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-369-3144) chef/owner Roberto Santibañez has found a small way to do so: He’s switched all the corn in his three restaurants to Mexican heirloom.
Santibañez made the switch around the Day of the Dead (at the beginning of November), after connecting with the folks from Masienda, a Manhattan-based company specializing in importing landrace corn varieties.
The differences between landrace and monoculture corn are stark: Instead of using layers of synthetic fertilizers, fields are openly pollinated. Rather than engineer seeds on a genetic level, they’ve been adapted to the environment by age-old selective breeding. And unlike newfangled cultivars, some of these heirloom varieties go back hundreds of years.
Masienda’s work also has a major economic impact. The company works with small independent farmers who have little or no access to the market, even within Mexico. Where many buyers and importers want only uniform kernels and batches, they’ll take the entire harvest, even the disfigured or discolored kernels. If a bag of blue has some red in it, Masienda doesn’t care; it’s just as flavorful and healthful as its unblemished counterpart. “All of us need to pitch in and buy the ugly apple, not just the perfect one,” says Santibañez. “Because the perfect one got us to where we are.”
There are slight differences in flavor, too. Some corn aficionados (yes, that’s a thing) describe the differences as a sommelier would wine. While you’re probably not going to pick up notes of tobacco or cassis, there are subtle differences among the 59 varieties of landrace, each of which will make appearances at Fonda, when available. Last week, it was a yellow from Oaxaca. This week: a blue from Michoacán. In a couple weeks, they may be using a red. “It’s nuanced, hard to describe,” says Santibañez. “Some corns like the red from Oaxaca taste almost woodsy. Some have more sweetness; some have more accented flavor, more corny. It’s a little complex. The variance can be so delicate.”
Once the corn is purchased, Santibañez sends it to his nixtamal-maker in Queens to undergo the nixtamalization process, a traditional method of steeping dried corn in hot water with limestone. To achieve the right consistency for the masa (dough), the maker adjusts the recipe according to the individual corn; some varieties need more water, others more corn, some just take longer.
The masa is then delivered to the restaurant, where it’s used throughout the menu, in everything from fresh-pressed tortillas and quesadillas to a thickener in some soups and the Mexican hot chocolate.
When customers sit down, servers go over the new corn initiative. For the most part, the response has been positive (even though Fonda now charges $1.50 for a second helping of tortilla chips). There was, however, a bit of an adjustment with some of the parents and kids in the Park Slope location. But Santibañez understands: “Imagine you’re a kid who grew up eating white tortillas, then all of a sudden, you open a basket and they’re blue.”
The heirloom product is significantly more expensive than generic products. To Santibañez, though, it’s important to use this as an education process for guests; he feels it’s his duty as a Mexican restaurant owner to honor and preserve cultural and farming traditions from the country he celebrates. “I believe it is our job to advocate to our guests why this corn is so superior, and healthier to eat,” says Santibañez. “By committing to having only this corn for our tortillas, our guests will taste and even feel the difference for themselves.”