Dad, Movie Projectionist, Minnesotan. Ruby (&c. &c.) developer/lead at the U of MN. Rust co-maintainer for Exercism.io.
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Live in Lesotho

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On December 28, 1980, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba performed before a crowd of 75,000 in Lesotho, an enclaved country entirely within the borders of South Africa, in a historic concert that confronted and unnerved South Africa's white supremacist regime. Masekela and Makeba, long exiled from their home country, would not return home to South Africa for another decade. The initial print-run of the concert record was only a few hundred and soon fell into obscurity; today, nearly 39 years after the historic concert took place, the concert record is being re-issued.
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iwhitney
10 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Corn Fed

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Underneath the rumble of the 7 train in Corona, Tortilleria Nixtamal turns about 5,000 pounds of corn masa into 50,000 tortillas every single day. Stacks of them fill all the available shelf space in the unassuming storefront, as a lone conveyer belt spits out a continuous single-file row of perfect tortillas. Unlike mass-produced supermarket flour tortillas, or even the average corn tortilla at your local bodega, these are all made from real corn – no preservatives added – and they’re always fresh. Anything over a day or two old is turned into chips.

When Tortilleria Nixtamal opened 10 years ago, real-deal fresh corn tortillas were impossible to find in New York, and stores had only recently begun to stock Mexican goods aside from the odd can of Ortega chiles. Co-founder Fernando Ruiz was convinced he lived in the best city in the world. Why, then, couldn’t he find Mexican food that actually tasted like it does in Mexico? He believed it started with the corn and, with that simple premise, helped spark a culinary revolution in New York.

As Steven Alvarez, a professor at St. John’s College who teaches a class called Taco Literacy on the foodways of Mexican immigrants in the United States, put it to us, “their name says it all.” Alvarez explained that the process of nixtamalization, in which ground corn is cooked with water and alkaline limewater to create the more nutritious and flavorful hominy, is “an ancient technology that is a gift to the world.”

“That’s what makes them significant,” Alvarez said. “Making that [a part] of the community and for the community – to have fresh nixtamal locally sourced.” Tortilleria Nixtamal’s real influence was spotlighting the tortilla itself, not what went inside it. In Alvarez’s view, “you can put anything inside a taco if you have a really good tortilla.”

And then Nixtamal went a step further. Until 2013, the tortilleria sourced all its corn from a grower in Illinois. That was until a fledgling food entrepreneur named Jorge Gaviria approached Ruiz and his partner, Shauna Page, with an alluring offer: Gaviria could bring them real Mexican heirloom corn, grown by small-scale farmers mostly in the southern state of Oaxaca. By using Gaviria’s Masienda corn, Ruiz was able to finally bring the platonic ideal of his childhood tortillas to his new home of New York. Perhaps more significantly, Nixtamal joined an effort to revive a dying culinary tradition in Mexico.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexican culinary traditions have been fading out. Before NAFTA, Mexican cuisine revolved around the milpa, an intercropped field growing corn, beans, squash and other vegetables, with corn being king. While Mexico protected corn farmers as a national heritage, during NAFTA negotiations, the United States required Mexico to remove these protections.

Mexico’s corn economy changed overnight. According to anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez, author of the book Eating NAFTA, U.S. corn exports to Mexico increased more than 400 percent between 1997 and 2005, with much of it coming in the form of refined corn products like corn syrup. With no more subsidies protecting them, Mexican farmers could no longer grow corn for profit. According to the Wilson Center, more than two million farmers lost their jobs, and many migrated to the United States. During four years in the early 2000s, tortilla consumption dropped 15 percent, with the decline even faster in urban areas.

Now, even when Mexicans are eating tortillas, they’re mostly made in factories using a mass-produced corn flour called Maseca. In 2007, 70 percent of tortillas consumed in Mexico were produced by Gruma, the company behind Maseca, along with other brands like Mission Foods and Guerrero.

Masienda’s Gaviria was fascinated by food pathways – the stories of how ingredients came to the dinner table. He grew up with his mother’s Mexican food and, like Ruiz and Page of Nixtamal, dreamed of opening his own tortilleria.

Gaviria initially played around with the idea of buying corn from farmers in New York State, but after a few trips to Oaxaca, realized that nothing could compare to the stuff coming straight from the source. The problem, though, was that small-scale farmers were no longer growing corn except for their own personal consumption. The market for heirloom corn had mostly evaporated.

He came to the realization that he would have to create an entire supply chain for the corn from scratch, and that he would need a buyer in the United States who actually cared about Mexican heirloom corn. One of those early buyers was Tortilleria Nixtamal. The other was the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, who was planning the opening of his New York restaurant Cosme around the same time that Nixtamal was starting to operate.

Nixtamal and Masienda are changing the economics of tortillas in both New York and in Mexico.

Gaviria’s idea was to find small-scale farmers one by one who had surplus corn, buy it from them at market price and then import it to the United States. Before Gaviria, what little market existed for heirloom corn was often exploitative. “Coyote” operations would buy a farmer’s entire crop, taking the corn and promising to pay later, but never doing so. To avoid this problem, Gaviria partnered with a nonprofit based in Mexico called the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Over the course of eight months, Gaviria and a CIMMYT researcher built up relationships with farmers, working out intricate systems that would determine fair prices and ensure that they were only buying surplus corn. Soon enough, they were supplying corn to Nixtamal, Cosme and food purveyors across the United States.

The problem for purchasers is that Masienda’s corn is expensive. Its price, before transportation expenses, is about four times the cost of purchasing and shipping the corn Nixtamal buys from Illinois. Outside of fine-dining spots like Cosme – as well as Nixtamal’s biggest customer of Masienda-corn tortillas, the New York-based burrito mini-chain Dos Toros – many restaurants don’t want to pay for the significant price differential.

For someone like Shauna Page, Ruiz’s partner and a self-proclaimed tortilla expert, there is a clear difference in taste between tortillas made from Masienda corn and those made from the corn grown in Illinois. Yet for someone who is not eating tortillas every day, hot off the press, it’s harder to discern between the two. So it’s no surprise that the bulk of Nixtamal’s tortillas – around 80 percent of their production – are still made from domestic corn.

Even so, Nixtamal and Masienda are changing the economics of tortillas in both New York and in Mexico. In New York, Nixtamal convinced restaurants that they should be serving tortillas made from real corn, and without preservatives, whether the corn is from Illinois or Oaxaca. And it’s not just because they taste better. Page, who is an agricultural economist by trade, said that preservatives in corn can deplete its nutritional value by at least half. As a result, Nixtamal’s tortillas are significantly healthier.

Masienda is helping spread the gospel of fresh corn tortillas not just in New York, but across the United States. It not only sells its corn to restaurants around the country, but now makes its own tortillas that are sold in gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods.

And what does it all mean for Mexico? According to Gálvez, author of Eating NAFTA, “we are turning our appetites for this food into a market that enables farmers to do something they haven’t been able to do for the past 25 years,” i.e. to grow heirloom corn for a profit. She added that the crew at Tortilleria Nixtamal are “the only ones doing the work they’re doing” in New York.

Still, she wishes that “that every mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant could have access to a molino [mill], a communal resource, as in Mexico.” While restaurants like Cosme and companies like Masienda and Nixtamal are creating a new market for heirloom corn in Mexico, Gálvez believes they should be cognizant of whether it is accessible across disparate communities in the United States as well.

From its perch in Corona, Tortilleria Nixtamal has been advancing that goal since it opened in 2008. You can walk in any time and buy a pound of fresh tortillas for two dollars (or three if they’re pressing Masienda corn). Or visit any of Nixtamal’s partner restaurants in New York that serve its Masienda tortillas: Dos Toros, Fonda and Tacocina.

As Page said, the fight for healthy, delicious food is “one person at a time, it’s one field at a time, it’s one farmer at a time.”

For diners trying to support their efforts, it’s one taco at a time.

The post Corn Fed appeared first on Culinarybackstreets.

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iwhitney
10 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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chickpea and kale shakshuka

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The fact that it’s taken me almost 10 years to find a new version of shakshuka to fuss over, is as much a testament to the superbness of the classic as it is a compliment to these new additions. Shakshuka, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a North African dish, largely Tunisian, of eggs baked in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s also one of the most beloved recipes in the Smitten Kitchen archives, right up there with broccoli slaw and my mom’s apple cake, and for good reason: it’s about the highest calling of eggs-for-dinner I’ve found, and I think we know how hard I’ve studied this category. This recipe takes it a step further into the realm of a stew, with chickpeas and kale, and it comes from a wonderful book out this past spring, Family, by Hetty McKinnon.

what you'll need

McKinnon got her start in Sydney, Australia almost 10 years ago with a salad-delivery service she ran out of her home kitchen and biked the deliveries around town, which sounds amazing right now, doesn’t it? Now in Brooklyn, she co-founded Neighborhood Studio, a communal cooking space. Family, her third cookbook, focuses on vegetarian comfort food with an eye towards the daily ritual of cooking, however your family might look, and it might be my favorite yet. It’s incredibly down-to-earth about weeknight cooking; you get the sense that these are recipes that have really worked for her family while keeping the people who cook from finding it a drag. I’ve made the spinach and halloumi gozleme, the cacio e pepe broccoli with white beans (I mean, talk about all of my favorite food words in one title), I’m eager to try the tofu larb, but this, this is the dish I’ve now made three times since May and don’t expect to stop any time soon. It’s hearty and comforting, so perfect for this first day that really feels like fall.

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iwhitney
70 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Why Do City Dwellers Love to Hate Scooters?

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You might have noticed that electric scooters have a remarkable ability to spark rage across a large swath of urban residents. More than 100,000 people follow Bird Graveyard on Instagram, sharing all the creative ways that an e-scooter can meet its demise. The profile page of another popular Instagram account, Scooters Behaving Badly, reads “Don’t park or ride your scooter like an asshole. Or better yet, don’t ride one at all.”

Popular hostility to e-scooters is puzzling when one considers that the vehicles take up less public street space than automobiles and don’t pollute as much as they do. The more thoughtful e-scooter critics often point to safety concerns, with some justification: The CDC recently concluded that about one in 5,000 e-scooter trips in Austin resulted in a rider being hurt.  

But such safety fears should be put in context, as riders seem to pose minimal risk to anyone other than themselves. I’m not aware of a single pedestrian in the United States being killed in an e-scooter collision since Bird and Lime launched two years ago; for comparison, in 2018 alone, automobiles killed over 6,200 pedestrians in this country. And yet, a columnist in The New York Times decried e-scooters for “wreaking havoc,” calling on mayors to flex their regulatory powers “like a sober parent” in order to keep citizens safe from them. When automobile drivers recently killed four e-scooter riders in Atlanta, local leaders responded by swiftly imposing a nighttime e-scooter curfew—but not restricting automobiles.

The pushback against e-scooters is even more striking when compared with warmer popular attitudes toward another new mobility mode: ride hail. Vociferous opposition from taxi drivers and some local policymakers not withstanding, there has never been much of a popular backlash against ride hail—even as researchers publish a growing stream of studies showing that companies like Uber and Lyft worsen congestion and undermine public transportation.

In other words, urban residents seem to collectively shrug our shoulders at a new mobility mode that’s damaging our transportation network, while freaking out over another new mode that seems far less threatening—especially to non-riders—and perhaps even beneficial to the urban environment.  What gives?

The answer could be rooted in our innate preference for the comfortably familiar over the jarringly new.

When ride hail burst on the scene a decade ago, it offered an almost magical ability to summon a vehicle by tapping a smartphone app. As novel as that was, an Uber car picking up a passenger or driving down a street looks and acts pretty much the same as a taxi always has. If you were an automobile driver or a pedestrian, there was very little mental or physical adjustment necessary to accommodate ride hail’s emergence.

That’s not the case with e-scooters, which resemble nothing commuters are likely to have encountered before. When e-scooters arrive in a city, an automobile driver must suddenly share road space with a vehicle in an unfamiliar shape, moving in unfamiliar ways—which is stressful. Pedestrians, too, must adapt their behavior when e-scooters show up, keeping an eye out for a rider zipping along the sidewalk or an unused device blocking their path.

Limited urban street and sidewalk space play a role as well. Tara Goddard, a professor at Texas A&M, has observed how scarcity of public right of way can lead individual commuters to self-identify within a group such as bicyclists, pedestrians, or drivers, seeing the others as rivals. No group is going to be thrilled when a new competitor like e-scooters suddenly arrives and requires its own space to move on a crowded street.

What does seem apparent is that popular sentiment toward ride hail and e-scooters does not reflect what we currently know about their effect on cities. Even Uber and Lyft now acknowledge they have worsened congestion, and transportation researchers have repeatedly shown that ride hail contributes to falling transit ridership. But there is little evidence that the average urban resident links ride hail to their slower commute or their transit agency’s yawning budget deficit.

Meanwhile, most everyone agrees that e-scooters pollute less and take up less street space than automobiles, and they could potentially provide a so-called first mile-last mile solution to help commuters reach public transportation. To be fair, carelessly discarded vehicles create serious problems for those with disabilities and other mobility limitations, but solutions like dedicated e-scooter parking and locks can fix that. Still, lots of people wish that e-scooters would simply disappear.

A question, then, is whether this current antipathy is permanent or if it will subside as urban commuters get used to them. Given e-scooters’ potential to improve urban mobility networks, acceptance would be a good thing. Local leaders could help by keeping their cool when enduring the occasional rant from a resident resentful about having to watch out for a new kind of vehicle. Better yet, they could invest in building more protected lanes that both separate e-scooter riders (and bikers) from dangerous automobiles and reduce e-scooter-pedestrian conflicts. Such protections are a rare luxury in American cities today, forcing e-scooter trips to occur on crowded sidewalks or unsafe streets.

If there’s a broader lesson, perhaps it’s that we need time to understand the effect of a new mobility technology on cities. Ride hail has turned out to be more detrimental than most urban leaders initially expected: In retrospect, many of today’s commutes would probably be faster if cities had curtailed ride hail’s rapid growth when it began a decade ago.

There are signs that e-scooters could have a much more positive effect on urban communities, but we will need sound studies to know for sure. One initial analysis from the city of San Francisco concluded that more than a third of scooter trips begin or end at a transit stop, suggesting that scooters could become natural feeders to public transportation. Another from the city of Portland, Oregon, found that 34 percent of e-scooter rides replaced an automobile trip, offering evidence that e-scooters could mitigate congestion. But academic assessments are the gold standard, and though researchers say a number about e-scooters are underway, few are complete.

We should heed those studies’ findings when they are published.  They offer a much better basis for urban policy than the knee-jerk reactions of commuters responding emotionally to a new technology hitting the streets.

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iwhitney
87 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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The Saltwater Railroad

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Hurricane Dorian’s terrible destruction in the Bahamas has thrust the nation into the news. The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is made up of some seven hundred islands, from sandy cays to well-known tourist attractions. Nassau, the archipelago’s capital, is 184 miles from Miami, Florida, so it’s not surprising that this country’s history is intimately tied to the history of the United States.

After the American Revolution, thousands of Loyalists and enslaved people were settled on the British-controlled islands. The Loyalists’ attempt to forge a new cotton kingdom on the islands failed. Slavery was legal in British possessions until 1834, but the plantation system didn’t take on the poor soil of the islands. The population of the islands was also majority black. By the 1840s, write historians Irvin D. S. Winsboro and Joe Knetsch, the Bahamas were “a hotbed of resistance to slavery and a destination for regional liberated or escaped slaves.” They note:

Local imperial practices allowed blacks to own land, have access to education, and legally marry. Moreover, black Bahamians had grown strong enough in their collective efforts to pressure London for civil and human rights unknown in the antebellum South.

For enslaved people looking to escape the American southeast, Canada was a very long way away. The then-British-controlled Bahamas, on the other hand, were just across the sea. Not that that was an easy crossing: storms, slave-catchers, and pirates were serious threats. Yet many had made their way to the islands, at least since the first Seminole War (1818). In that war, slaveholder Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida. Florida, once a refuge for the formerly enslaved, was now under threat of being absorbed by the Slave Power. Hundreds attempted escape instead to the Bahamas.

Map of The Bahamas, 1816 via Wikimedia Commons

Under British law, these escapees weren’t considered “fugitives” because escaping from slavery in another country wasn’t a crime. And in 1825, Britain declared that anybody “who reaches British ground” was free. Winsboro and Knetsch write:

The action further inflamed the passions of U.S. slave masters against Britain. Not only did the ruling immediately free 300 American runaways in the islands, but also probably stimulated numerous other American bondpeople to contemplate freedom in the Bahamas.

Indeed, by the 1830s, a total of at least 6,000 formerly enslaved people had made their way to the archipelago.

By 1841, a ship called the Creole, carrying over a hundred enslaved people from Virginia to New Orleans, was liberated by revolt. They sailed the ship to Nassau and sparked an international incident. They would ultimately be released, even those initially charged with mutiny.

Pro-slavery forces on the mainland were outraged by this and other successful escapes to the islands. By the early 1840s, when 40% of the population of territorial Florida was enslaved, an escape route of this magnitude presented an enormous threat. Winsboro and Knetsch detail the diplomatic wrangling between Washington D.C. and London over seven slaves who made it to Nassau from St. Augustine in 1843. Ultimately, the seven would not be returned to slavery on the mainland, an outcome that enraged American Secretary of State John C. Calhoun.

Later negotiations would “compensate” the alleged owners of these human beings. But the Bahamas, across the “saltwater railroad,” remained a major sticking point in U.S./British relations until most of the slave states broke away from the Union in 1861. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the islands were famous as a refuge of self-emancipation.

The post The Saltwater Railroad appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

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iwhitney
97 days ago
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Expendio de Maiz

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Tucked against the back wall of the Expendio de Maiz kitchen are three massive metal pots. Containing cloudy mixtures of corn kernels and limestone water, they seem to sit unattended, when in fact intermittent yet constant attention is being paid to their progress.

What is happening is one of the most ancient and important processes birthed by Mesoamerica: nixtamalización. For a people whose main staple was corn, the discovery of nixtamalization was just as important as the domestication of corn itself. This process of mixing corn kernels in an alkaline solution not only loosens the husks of the corn kernels, making them easier to grind, but also provides all kinds of additional nutritional value – releasing vitamin B3, making the corn protein more available to the person consuming it and increasing the amount of calcium in the corn.

But recent decades in Mexico have seen a rise in the use of Maseca, or the TV dinner of the tortilla industry, as one writer put it. This highly industrialized corn flour is simply mixed with water and whamo, you’ve got dough and are on your way to rolling out tortillas. There are some in the tortilla business (and plenty in the business of eating tortillas) that are calling for a revaluation of traditionally nixtamalized tortillas. Preserving nixtamalization, among other traditional methods and heritage ingredients, has become particularly important to Jesús Tornes, managing partner of Expendio de Maiz.

nixtamalization mexico city

After attending culinary school in Puebla, Jesús spent time cooking in and with rural communities throughout Mexico only to become passionate about safeguarding traditional Mexican cooking. Expendio de Maiz (an expendio is a little corner store or stand, making this the “corn stand”) is an outgrowth of that passion.

In fact, Jesús can get quite animated when discussing the restaurant’s work. “Expendio is an ambitious project that has a character of anarchy,” he says. “ It’s a project that goes hand in hand with the goal that it will benefit and structurally change the contemporary perspective of the people involved.” Working in Expendio has turned its staff into tortilla snobs, Jesús says. “They know how to make tortillas, to nixtamal the corn, to grind it into dough. When they are at lunch and are offered a machine-made tortilla made from Maseca, they get pissed off.”

Expendio has an open kitchen divided into sections by volcanic rock, and rafters strung with drying herbs and wild greens. A small staff is bustling around, but also pausing – to explain dishes to customers and sample the corn kernels from the nixtamal solution, testing their readiness for grinding.

According to cook Ana González, her blue hair plaited into a tight braid and tattoos peeking out from under her sleeves, Expendio can easily produce 400 kilos of corn dough in a weekend. They blend two types of corn that come from the state of Guerrero, one blue (prieto) and one yellow (cremoso), and sell their freshly made dough to restaurants across the city.

“When they are at lunch and are offered a machine-made tortilla made from Maseca, they get pissed off.”

What they save for themselves is converted into an endless variety of open-faced tacos that they offer at family-style tables just steps from the kitchen. It’s a place of collaboration, not just between cooks, but also between the kitchen and their clients. As Jesús makes clear, the customers that become part of the Expendio community get the good stuff.

“If someone comes and they are in a rush or have a bad vibe we are going to send them something delicious, something they will find on the menu. But if they start to build community with us, if they come back over and over again, every time they return we will treat them in a way that shows what they mean to us. They are no longer clients, they are a community.”

If you came every day for a week to Expendio, you would find something slightly different on the non-existent menu each day. The staff cooks with the seasons and the whims that take them. One day, fresh tortillas with hoja santa and a cotija-like Guerrero cheese; the next, fried corn kernels and quelites (Mexican wild greens).

“If someone comes that knows us, who has come on a recommendation, their expectations are going to be much higher than someone that comes with no idea about what we do. Those that have higher expectations allow us to cook with a characteristic [that is] essential for everyone that works here – cook as if the person coming is someone you would love to make love to or someone that you would love to embrace – your cousin, a member of your family, your mother – someone you haven’t seen in forever. This is the rule,” says Jesús.

That kind of deep love is easier with ingredients that the staff can feel good about serving. Many of the products used in Expendio come directly from Jesús’ 32 hectares on the Costa Chica of Guerrero; others are the result of his and his partners’ travels throughout Mexico where they seek to build relationships with small farmers.

“My travels have allowed me to gain the trust of producers which is the most difficult part within rural Mexico,” he says. “They might be producing something incredible but if they don’t trust you they won’t share it with you.”

Through those collaborations Expendio has access to some of the best of what rural Mexico has to offer.

“What we do is generate…a continuity of foods that are under threat of disappearing. They exist, but they could be lost. Bananas, mangos, quelites, also processes, oils, fats, lots of wild fruits. I’m not interested in introducing [new] seeds that may be organic, but are also hyper-production. I prefer to provide continuity to local seeds that have belonged to this land for 400 years.” For the folks at Expendio de Maiz, moving forward is all about looking back.

Location

[mapsmarker marker="11697"]
 
Expendio de Maiz
Address: Av. Yucatan 84, Roma Norte
Telephone: +52 55 2498 9964
Hours: Tues.-Sun. 9:30am-6pm; closed Monday

The post Expendio de Maiz appeared first on Culinary Backstreets.

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iwhitney
104 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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