F&W Game Changers: Kernels of Change

Masienda sparked a masa movement in America while preserving the genetic diversity of one of the world’s most crucial crops.

kernels of corn
Photo: Courtesy of Masienda

In December 2019, Los Angeles company Masienda unveiled the world's only electric corn mill with volcanic rock grinding plates designed for kitchen countertops—an 82-pound molinito that grinds maize for the soft, pliable dough known as masa.

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It was a triumphant moment for Masienda owner Jorge Gaviria, who has spent years convincing chefs and home cooks that better-tasting, more ethically sourced masa is worthwhile. Few in the food industry were talking about masa made from heirloom kernels when Masienda debuted in 2014, and few home cooks in this country made masa in the traditional way, which calls for cooking and soaking dried kernels in an alkaline solution—a process called nixtamalization—and then grinding it into dough. Now a "third-wave" masa movement, as Gaviria calls it, is sweeping the country, with Masienda helping fuel it. The company's molinito ($1,750, masienda.com) currently has a four-month waiting list. "There's no reason why masa shouldn't be as highly regarded as a grass-fed steak," Gaviria says.

Masa forms the base of corn tortillas, tamales, arepas, pupusas, and more, but both the dough and its main ingredient, dried dent corn, have historically been commoditized in the United States. In 2013, while apprenticing at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gaviria began to wonder: Why couldn't masa be made with higher-quality ingredients? Heirloom corn gave tortillas a distinct flavor and terroir. Gaviria launched Masienda the following year, buying surplus maize directly from farms in Central Mexico.

Today, the average farmer that Masienda works with manages between 5 and 10 acres of land. Masienda buys the surplus at two to five times the price of commodity corn, giving the farmers an incentive to grow the lesser-known, regional varieties.

Masienda's first clients were Mexican restaurant chefs in the U.S. Now, the company has expanded its reach to home cooks. Masienda sells its own heirloom corn tortillas in a handful of supermarkets across the country, as well as small bags of whole kernels and tortilla presses on its website.

"Masa is our purpose. And around that, everything that makes that masa possible, beginning with the farmers," Gaviria says. "We're a masa-focused mission."

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