If there's nothing else to eat here, there are always tortillas. Tortillas! Forty cents a kilo, which contains (I just counted) 53 of them.

Where would we be without tortillas? There is nothing more sensual for us Mexico-philes than the first hot tortilla of the day. Biting into it is not unlike biting into the skin of your sweet young love back 40 years ago when her skin was so succulent, her flesh hot and ever ready to be nibbled on and love was everywhere, floating up before you like a steamy vision, and you could hardly make it through the day without this passionate love of warm flesh rising up on you like a fecund summer storm to sweep you along with the protein-rich smell of it. Eating a hot, just-made tortilla fresh from the hands of the tortilla lady is something like that.

Your average tortilla is fabricated with whitewash -- that stuff we used to use to paint the outhouse walls. (We'd also throw a handful down the hole to make the place a little less smelly.) In English, it's called lime. To make tortillas with it, you mix a pinch or so of the lime with water, and boil the corn in it for a short time. Drain and wash, grind it up and you have tortilla flour. Pat it flat with your hands and heat it on a special round, warm plate called a "comal" until it is cooked through, stack the tortillas on a white cloth with a red flower design, take them home and open up the cloth, wrap one up in what they call a "flauta" and pop it in your mouth. You have the taste and feel of divine flesh, eating the flesh of the gods.

Lime -- known here as "cal" -- turns up everywhere: not only in tortillas but in cement for making buildings and for laying down bricks. It's that white stuff painted around the base of trees -- presumably to keep the ants from carrying off the fruit and leaves. It's also used to make piggy banks -- "figuras" -- for storing change, and to paint lines on soccer fields.

But mostly, it's tortillas. Cal, it turns out, provides just enough minerals to make it possible for people to survive on them alone, which not a few do in this poor area. You can't say the same for Hostess Twinkies and Coca-Cola, the preferred poisons of the poor to the north.

Every time I think of cal, I think of warm, soft yum tortillas -- but I also think of whitewash, and Tom Sawyer, and that great song from World War I, sung by the "limeys" immersed in the gook of the front-line trenches. Can you hear them now, lying in their filthy, rat-infested dugouts, black with mud and ooze, poised for yet another battle of Ypres, singing loud and clear?

    "Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
    Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
    Wash me in your water
    That you wash your dirty daughter
    And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall."

--- Carlos Amantea

This article appeared in slightly different form at

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