Cover art for podcast Distillations | Science History Institute

Distillations | Science History Institute

294 EpisodesProduced by Science History InstituteWebsite

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.


The Ancient Chemistry Inside Your Taco

When you bite into a taco, quesadilla, or anything else involving a traditionally made corn tortilla, your taste buds get to experience the results of an ancient chemical process called nixtamalization. The technique dates to around 1500 BCE and involves cooking corn kernels with an alkaline substance, like lime or wood ash, which makes the dough softer, tastier, and much more nutritious.

Only in the 20th century did scientists figure out the secret of nixtamalization—the process releases niacin, one of the essential B vitamins. Our guest, archaeologist and nixtamalization expert Rachel Briggs, says that the historical chemical process transformed corn from a regular food into a viable dietary staple, one that cultures around the world continue to rely on for many of their calories. Without nixtamalization Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and the Aztec would not have survived, let alone flourished.

Benjamin Miller and Christina Martinez are the only chefs in Philadelphia making their tortillas from scratch. Our associate producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, visited the couple at their traditional Mexican restaurant in South Philadelphia to find out why they’re so dedicated to handmade tortillas—and to see the nixtamalization process in action.


Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy Guest: Rachel Briggs Reporter: Rigoberto HernandezProducer: Mariel Carr Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music courtesy of the Audio Network

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