Oct 1, 2021 • 11M

The Tortilla Scandal

When journalists put it all on the line for people who watch TV.

Open in playerListen on);
Episode details

Bob stumbles on a controversy about a media personality’s enchilada recipe — and learns about truth, celebrity and Mexican food.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT: Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one which we are in. 

BOB GARFIELD: Welcome to Bully Pulpit. That was Teddy Roosevelt. I’m Bob Garfield with Episode 11: The Tortilla Scandal.

Gotta tell you, this one is hard. Look, I think it’s fair to say that in 44 years of journalism, I haven’t shied away from difficult subjects — because that’s what we do, right? That’s why we are here, to shine light into some dark corners. Sometimes dark and damp. The kind of fetid hiding places where bad things happen out of public view. Unseen crevices, shadowy and, you know, moist.

But journalism is all about venturing there, risks be damned, to protect the public’s right to know. I’m looking at you, Armando Tinoco of Showbiz Cheat Sheet. He is the author of the blockbuster story headlined “‘Magnolia Table’: Joanna Gaines Makes ‘Controversial’ Substitute in Mexican Enchilada Recipe.”

JOANNA GAINES: So I’ve got my 9x13 pan, and I’m going to put about half a cup of the enchilada sauce at the bottom.

GARFIELD: The Magnolia Table episode starts out normally. As the old saying goes, “You can’t make enchiladas if you’re not willing to make enchilada sauce.” And the host, Joanna Gaines, for a while says and does nothing that would suggest controversy.

GAINES: So, I’m going to add the shredded rotisserie chicken and then I like to add some mozzarella cheese. It’s a nice go-to, safe recipe that everyone will love.

GARFIELD: OK, trigger warning. I’m not going to show you this, because we have some technical problems with our video, but it turns out not to matter what Gaines says about “safe” and “everyone will love,” because pictures don’t lie. She is wrapping her enchiladas in wheat-flour tortillas. It’s like watching police body-cam video. And there were some in the audience who were all, like, am I really seeing this?

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY: Holy...fucking shit.

GARFIELD: You can say that again, Matthew McConaughey, maybe even slower. Because Gaines totally courts the inevitable backlash, openly declaring, and I quote: “I grabbed a handful of fresh tortillas from Jesse’s today. In traditional enchiladas, sometimes it’s corn tortillas, but I like to use flour tortillas and it’s quite controversial.”

“Controversial,” she says. No wonder she got the attention of Showbiz Cheat Sheet, which zeroed right in (I mean, if we’re to credit the headline) on this potential crime against humanity — like genocide, or cinnamon-raisin bagels. Is God okay with tortillas not made with corn? 

YEAH YEAH YEAHS: (Music) It's sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege, you say… It's sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege, you say…

GARFIELD: This is precisely the matter explored by food vlogger Adam Ragusea, who painstakingly documented the relationship between white flour and white people.

ADAM RAGUSEA: The soft-shell corn tortilla is the original tortilla, originating in pre-Columbian America. Wheat didn’t even grow in this hemisphere until European colonialists brought it over.

GARFIELD: I’ll return to Adam in a moment. Because in media, controversy is a commodity and you really, really need to inspect the goods. For now though, let’s focus on another important question: Joanna Gaines, the enchilada lover — who is she again? Well, here’s who: a famous American. A cable-TV-famous, unthreateningly attractive, very white-teethed American, who, with her even more white-teethed husband Chip, were for five years hosts of HGTV’s super popular home-renovation-porn show Fixer Upper.

SNEAK PEEK OF FIXER UPPER EXCERPTS: “Lucas and Laney, today is the big day. Are you ready to see your fixer upper?”
“Let’s do it!”
“OH MY!”
“This kitchen…”
“How did you do this?”

GARFIELD: The show was a blockbuster, but is just ending a three-year hiatus while Joanna and Chip spent more time with their five kids, their lawyers, and their very own fledgling cable channel Magnolia Network, where, at the moment, Jo doesn’t renovate old farm houses but cooks meals on TV. Yes, she is now a DIY celebrity chef, and as such, what she does with an enchilada matters.

Ok, not “matters,” as in having any relevance to anyone’s real life in this particular solar system. “Matters” as in feeding the industry built on the passing interest of many, many TV consumers who may or may not be up to speed on, say, the systematic erosion of voting rights for Black Americans or atrocities in Myanmar or the burning of our planet to a cinder, but definitely do feel a kinship with Jo and Chip, becausetelevision.

In that universe, not only can Armando Tinoco gain employment writing about the tortilla ingredients of the rich and famous, but everything Joanna Gaines does (with the possible exception of her autonomic nervous system) is also newsworthy. I commend you, for example, to Rachel Askinasi’s scoop for Insider headlined: “I Tried Joanna Gaines' Restaurant-worthy, Cereal-coated French Toast and It's Perfect for Family Brunch.”

Pulitzer committee, take note. But the journalistic interest extends beyond Joanna herself to those with whom she shares DNA. Credit Nathalie Kirby of House Beautiful for ferreting out the story headlined: “Joanna Gaines's Younger Sister Just Opened a Plant Shop Called ‘Ferny's’ and We Can't Wait to Shop There!”

These exposés don’t just land in a reporter's lap. Breaking this news required Kirby to roll up her sleeves and read Joanna Gaines’s Instagram, which gushed about both Ferny’s and sister Mary Kay — approximately like the Pentagon papers, if the Pentagon Papers had included an address and store hours.

It is journalistic enterprise like this that keeps you and me free. Because We. Must. Know. More. I mean, Chip and Joanna’s infidelity issues, don’t even get me started. Access Live was all over Chip, and we are the better for it.

INTERVIEWER: I’m thinking about your 18th wedding anniversary, the five kids, all the success, all the fame that’s come. Has there ever been a moment for the two of you where you thought you were going to throw in the towel or that you couldn’t do it?

CHIP GAINES: You know, that crisis, Jo and I had multiple opportunities to quit and throw in the towel, and that was just not in our DNA. So now I think we’ve taken that and realized that, you know, it’s like you can’t ever lose if you don’t quit. And Jo and I keep showing up day after day and sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s not, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other.

INTERVIEWER: Joanna, tell me about the engagement ring. 

GARFIELD: Now, amid all of this repertorial heroism, there is one small nitpick. When Showbiz Cheat Sheet caught Joanna Gaines preparing enchiladas with flour tortillas, it was possibly not exactly cultural desecration. It was more like what Mexicans call: “cooking.” YouTuber Adam Ragusea pressed the question with LA Times reporter Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Go talk to the people in Sonora. Go talk to the people in Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua--the borderlands. Go talk to the Tex Mex folks who have been right there on the border for generations, and for them, flour tortillas is what they grew up on. They totally speak Spanish. They look like you and I. Flour tortillas--our tradition. 

GARFIELD: Oh, so, no controversy after all. As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The moral of this story, I suppose, is that true journalistic courage comes in not caring if it’s “right” or “wrong.” Or “significant.” We should all maybe beware of trading in pompous pieties when the sacred appetites of the audience hang in the balance. On the other hand, I suppose credibility does matter, right? For instance, that cereal-coated French toast. Is it really perfect for family brunch? How do we know? For the love of God, how do we know?

Ok, we’re done here. We encourage you to become a paid subscriber to Booksmart Studios, so you can get extra content — including my weekly text column — from Bully Pulpit, Lexicon Valley, and Banished.

Meantime, please please please share our podcasts with friends, colleagues, relatives and your social networks: Twitter, Insta, Facebook. And also, rate us on iTunes, that is invaluable. We are trying to bring unapologetic scrutiny to the world of ideas, and we simply cannot do that without you. So please help, and, of course, thank you in advance.

Bully Pulpit is produced by Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz. Our theme was composed by Julie Miller and the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Bully Pulpit is a production of Booksmart Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.