A study of the symbiotic relationship between
humans and the gardens they tend to.
At OR.CA, our work begins by understanding that it doesn’t end — a landscape is an ongoing dialogue, shaped by seasons and in response to our environments. Plants + People is an ongoing exploration of what it looks like to plant roots, to honor cycles, to inhabit space, and to accept impermanence through the perspectives of individuals we admire.
The story of corn is inherently tied to people — part of a category of plants called cultigens, the plant cannot survive without human intervention. Corn's origins have been traced to the Balsas River Valley in south-central Mexico about 9,000 years ago. As people cultivated corn there, so too did the plant nourish them. So deeply ingrained was the connection between corn and people that many early Mesoamerican civilizations believed that humans were born from the ears of the corn plant. The botanical name for the species used to this day is Zea mays — "Zea" meaning "wheat-like grain," and "mays" from the Taino word meaning "giver of life."
Jorge Gaviria is the founder of Masienda, a brand of heirloom corn dedicated to reconnecting people to the staple crop through its cultural significance, culinary versatility and distinctive flavors. Working with a broad network of small-scale farmers in Mexico who prioritize genetic diversity and regenerative farming practices, Masienda's masa (or corn dough), invites professional chefs and home cooks alike to experience tortillas made in the style of Oaxaca's central valleys and beyond.
We spoke to Jorge about his diverse cultural upbringing in Miami, encountering "agriculture in the clouds" on the Oaxacan coast and how journeying into the world of masa has changed his relationship to food.
How was the process starting with focusing on your supply chain and then pivoting toward the consumer side?
It's fun! One of the humbling aspects of food is that it takes an enormously long time to overhaul a value chain for any staple. Agriculture doesn't respond as quickly as tech. It's an incredibly slow, methodical and deliberate process and has a lot more variables to reckon with — weather being one of them, climate change, people. So it's taken that long just to establish the supply chain we felt would be responsibly scalable. The fun part has been to figure out how to parlay that goodwill that we've earned in the restaurant industry toward consumer awareness. To connect those audiences and also continue to speak to both in ways that resonate has been a fun challenge.
We try make things as entertaining and educational as we can because most people still don't know what masa is even though all of us consume it all the time. You can ask anyone in the United States if they've had a taco in the last week and they'll probably say yes, but they don't know what the foundation of that food is.
I wrote a book called Masa [Masa: Techniques, Recipes and Reflections on a Timeless Staple (Chronicle Books)], that came out last year. Before that book existed there was nothing that was out there on the subject. It was very much an oral tradition. So if you grew up with this food and wanted to reconnect in a deeper way, or if you didn't and were just a really curious project cook, you couldn't easily jump in. There wasn't an easy guide to get you there.
Can you tell us more about some of your early memories of food or cooking?
I grew up in a diverse Hispanic community in Miami. My dad was born in Cuba and my mom was born in Mexico, but they both lived all throughout Latin America. I think the community in Miami really mirrors that experience — it's not defined by any one single Latin culture. It's really quite an eclectic identity overall. And so the food really reflected that. I grew up eating everything from ropa vieja, which was one of my favorite Cuban dishes growing up, to tostadas, arepas and carnitas.
With respect to Latin foods, I didn’t see any brands that had evolved with my own values as a consumer. No one was really talking about where their ingredients came from or how it's made, and my goal was to anchor that experience with some more context and quality. Masa was such a perfect place to do it because it's found throughout much of Latin America and it's such a defining staple of its cultures.
Can you talk more about that and how that differs from how corn is produced and consumed in the US?
We generally think of corn in the United States mostly as Frankenfood — certainly not something that's culturally significant or meaningful.
Unlike in the US, where most farmers are growing to sell, most corn farmers in Mexico are subsistence growers, meaning they are growing food for their own consumption. These folks have been passing down seeds in their families for hundreds or thousands of years:heirloom species that are locally adapted, also known as landraces. They can only really thrive in the areas that have birthed them.
So how do you work within that system when this is really food that's intended for someone's home? We work within a surplus model, so we only purchase what's in excess of what the family or community determines it needs or wants. That presented the first challenge — it meant that we've had to scale through the volume of folks rather than the individual farmer. We started our first year with about 12 farmers and today we work in a network of about 2,000. Each of those growers manages a five- to 10-acre plot that they maintain at any given time with their families — it's basically micro agriculture.
Can you talk more about the different variations of the corn plant?
Within corn, or maize, there's field corn — which is this hard, dense corn that a lot of people think of as Thanksgiving decoration on a tablescape — and then sweet corn, which is the soft, sweet kind that you'd eat with butter during the summer. Sweet corn in fact only constitutes a very small amount of corn that's produced in the world. When people talk about corn at an industrial level it's usually this hard field corn. In the U.S. we have a lot of different patented varieties but they're almost all based on one type of landrace that you find in Mexico, called Tuxpeño. In Mexico there are 59 different landraces of corn. What we've seen proliferated across the world is the expression of one single type of corn, but there are dozens of species that are documented, and then tens of thousands of examples between those species that have been identified in Mexico alone.
In Mexico you have an entire spectrum of color and texture and flavor that exist, which is why it was such a compelling place to start our supply chain. And because these are relatively insular communities, you're not getting a lot of trade across cultural or state or community lines. So that means every tortilla in every region of Mexico has a very different profile to it — and that starts with the corn itself.
We're so used to uniformity in our supply chain, but these are open-pollinated varieties of corn. For instance, our purple corn was actually a white corn that had cross-pollination from a blue variety that was nearby, and it just revealed itself in this really beautiful mauve speckled corn. And it's hard to reproduce — it just happens, and that's just an example of what open-pollinated possibilities look like. But it's certainly a far cry from what you see as very predictable rows and rows of basically cloned crops that look exactly the same and they're meant to perform that way for a variety of reasons that make sense, but at the limitation of flavor and visual diversity.
"The more you get your hands dirty and the more you become involved in the process of nourishing yourself, the more appreciation you have, the more you want to see that product stretch and the more value you assign to it."
Now that you've been working so closely with heirloom corn, do you feel like your relationship with food and cooking has changed?
Very much so. The way I think about organic food in general now is very different. From time to time there are little bugs that end up in corn, like grain weevils. We do a good job of cleaning everything before it gets to you, but it's an expression if you do see it that nothing was sprayed on the crop. We're not using wholesale pesticides that you see in commercial systems.
Also seasonal limitations. At times chefs would get really dependent on one varietal and we did our best to keep it in stock, but I often need to let folks know that we'll probably run out of that. It doesn't mean that you can't get the same color with another varietal or get close to it, but it's about starting to embrace the dynamism of the value chain as opposed to expecting one thing over and over again. It took certain clients, customers and partners who are open to that and who set the precedent for others to follow, because we're so used to food service deliveries that look or taste the same.
We try to encourage active consumption as opposed to passive consumption, which means taking an active lead in preparing what we produce, understanding that there's variability in that, and celebrating that — and also adjusting what you need to to make it work.
One of the best examples of active consumption was sourdough in 2020. I don't know if very many folks had ever made sourdough at home before then. It's illuminating and makes you realize the work that goes into it, let alone the agriculture that preceded all that to make it possible.
The more you get your hands dirty and the more you become involved in the process of nourishing yourself, the more appreciation you have, the more you want to see that product stretch and the more value you assign to it.
For me, just the process of making a tortilla from scratch — whether from my own nixtamal or from masa harina– —connects me so much more to what I'm eating and allows me to slow things down and appreciate how much work it took to get this food to the finish line. When you have that experience, you look at the world differently. You approach food and the cultures that birthed that food differently. To me it's one of the most powerful ways to affect change in the food system.