Since 2015, All Souls Tortilleria, our featured local vendor for August, has been combining foodways of the Sonoran Desert with the flavors and story of Northeast-grown heirloom corn, all centered on a process that harkens back to culinary methods that have been around for a very long time. The business’ start was assisted by City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington and an offer to help co-founders Joe Bossen, Sam Fuller, and Hubert d’Autremont acquire the necessary equipment to launch a corn tortilla bakery. We spoke with Joe about what happened next and everything that goes into providing the highest quality corn tortillas to everyone at the table. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
After City Market’s involvement, how did All Souls get started?
We spent our first months together hand-grinding, hand-pressing, and cooking off tortillas for a special events and a couple of small accounts. Over that fall and into the winter of 2015 we finally got all of the equipment we needed to be fully operational and went from hand-pressing a couple hundred tortillas an hour for customers to producing several thousand tortillas an hour and selling all over the Northeast. As of this past November, we moved from our original location in Warren to our new facility in the Old North End of Burlington.
You use only three ingredients, is that unique or unusual? Why those three ingredients?
For most of the time humans have been cooking corn, they have been steeping it in an alkaline solution of either ash or mineral lime and water. In the late 20th century, that began to change with industrialization that disrupted and displaced traditional modes of corn agriculture as well as traditional modes of preparing tortillas. In short, what we are doing is unusual today, but not unusual throughout history.
What is nixtamalization?
This is the process by which we combine and prepare the corn, with water and mineral lime. It is the primary way humans have prepared corn over the last 6,000 years.
Why did you choose to use that process?
It is more nutritive in that it increases the amount of calcium present, and, importantly, it makes the niacin in the corn bio-available for humans, which it would otherwise not be. This process also is responsible for all of the beautiful culinary properties tortillas have. It hydrates the starches, breaks down the pericarp, and emulsifies the oils in the germ of the corn kernels. When all of this happens and then you grind the nixtamal together, it makes masa and tortillas. Think of how different polenta or grits are from a tortilla. A lot of that is due to the difference of dry milling dry corn kernels versus wet milling hominy/nixtamal.
What is hominy?
Hominy is nixtamalized corn kernels before they have been ground into masa. Hominy is a great food on its own. We sell our heirloom corn hominy to a couple of accounts, like Penny Cluse, who make posole, a delicious stew, with it.
What is masa?
The dough made from hominy/nixtamal. It is simply stone-ground nixtamalized corn.
What makes your tortillas stand out? What’s unique about them?
We have done trials of about a dozen different varieties of corn and are confident that the varieties of corn we work with and the nuanced way we prepare them make them exceptional in terms of flavor, aromatics, and mouthfeel. The vast majority of tortillas made in the world at present are not coming from fresh-ground masa. Of the tortillas that are fresh-ground, most of those are not using corn from organic or sustainable farming systems. Of the even smaller cross-section of tortillerias that work with fresh-ground organic masa, even fewer work with heirloom corn, which has further implications in terms of seed sovereignty for agrarians as well as flavor for cooks. What we are doing is not new and is not unique, but it is far rarer than we’d care for it to be. We hope we are part of a broader return to this sort of tortilla making across longitudes and latitudes.
Are all of your ingredients sustainably produced? How so?
We only source organic corn. While even organic annual crop production can still be problematic at industrial scales, the growers we source from practice crop rotations and cover cropping, which has well-documented benefits for soil and fresh-water health.
How do you recommend tortillas be warmed? Why?
The manner in which tortillas are warmed determines whether they will be the aromatic supple food that elevates the human condition and makes one’s eyes sparkle with satisfaction and inspiration, or whether the tortillas will leave one with the experience of ‘meh.’ Tortillas are so thin that it’s easy to overcook them, drying them. Corn tortillas, unlike flour tortillas, do need to be warmed up. They simply aren’t any good without warming. Our website has a video we made that walks folks through how best to warm up our tortillas, and really any corn tortilla.
Do you have an overriding philosophy behind what you do?
There’s always room for one more at the table.
We want the food we make to bring together community, and we want to make sure our offerings, in turn, are available to as many people as possible in the community. While we charge a fair price for our tortillas to ensure livable wages for our workers and a premium is paid to the growers we depend on, we also are sure to regularly donate our products to area food shelves and other non-profits working on food justice issues in our area.
What else would you like customers to know about you, your facility, or your product?
We are grateful to have received the Slow Food Snail of Approval for the work that we’ve been doing. Stay tuned to our website and Instagram for special events, collaborations, and educational opportunities we are partaking in.