American Plate - Bite #70: Tostadas

Tuesday, April 7, 2015
It's impossible to separate the history of American food from the history of technological development. It's all well and good to talk about honoring our past or recreating our ancestors' recipes, but when new inventions arrive on the scene, food often evolves in a way it can never come back from. Just look at what happened to pies when wall ovens came along. A similar fate lay in store for tortilla chips, also known as tostadas.

Prior to the 1920s, plenty of tostadas were being produced; it's just that they were all being handmade in Southwestern homes. Grinding maize into corn flour, then forming, drying, and baking the tostadas was a time-consuming and messy process. Enter José Bartolomé Martinez, who owned the Azteca Mills company in San Antonio. Martinez successfully sold corn flour, tortillas, and masa, but in 1912, he took a leap forward by using his leftover masa and developing the technology to create and sell the first machine-made chips in the country. Productivity skyrocketed, and Azteca Mills hit upon another good idea by shaping their tostadas into triangles and marketing them to Mexican restaurants as handy dip/salsa conduits.

From there, it should be easy to guess the two things that happened next. Firstly, the machine-made tostadas were cheap, delicious, and easy to transport, so naturally, they quickly made the jump from restaurants to grocery stores so that people could enjoy them at home. Secondly, the machine-made tostadas promised a healthy profit and the technology wasn't difficult to comprehend, so Martinez' process was quickly copied by other companies. One such imitator was C. Elmer Doolin, and what he lacked in innovation, he made up for in business sense. Doolin bought out a Mexican company and its tostada recipe, and renamed his chip "Fritos". Perhaps you've heard of them?

Doolin also came up with the idea of the bag rack, making Fritos and his other baked-dough development (Cheetos) easier to display in stores, heralding a Golden Age of Chips that we're still in today. Tostadas marked a change from homemade to mass-produced food, a necessary adjustment as more and more Americans began moving to cities from their rural communities.

They continue to be incredibly popular today, be it as the precursor to an evening of Mexican food and margaritas with friends at a restaurant, as a dip-conveyance system at a neighborhood party, or even just as a fistful of Fritos on the couch as you binge-watch Netflix by yourself. I've indulged in all three of those methods of tostada consumption for the American Plate Project, and I'm not ashamed to admit that all three of them are a delight.