April Valencia grew up in her grandmothers' kitchens in Arizona. Adorned in an apron, her Nana Lola was a fixture in the room, like the clay comal on the wood-burning stove. To Valencia, the tortilla press that her nanas used daily for meals throughout the day was a coveted toy — its heavy handle lifting up and down, pushing the plate against balls of masa to form discs.
"To feed a family every day all of the time, there’s a real magical force behind that," Valencia told TODAY Food. "Whenever I'm too tired to cook dinner, I think how so many of us come from lines of really strong women. And I have them on all three sides of my family." (The "three sides" refers to her mother's, father's and stepfather's.)
At the start of the pandemic, when Valencia's unnamed catering company could no longer serve food at intimate gatherings and gallery openings around Los Angeles, she turned to these memories to prepare and gift tortillas to her friends and customers. Having spent much of her childhood in Mexico, too, she took inspiration from the tradition of putting squash blossoms and other flowers into quesadillas and tamales, plucking edible flowers — like nasturtiums and marigolds — and herbs from the garden bed at her hundred-year-old Laurel Canyon cabin and pressing them into each tortilla, the dough of which she dyed soft pastel colors using fruits and vegetables for added aesthetic pleasure.
"I needed to express myself and I'd always taken photos of flowers," said Valencia. "Nature is big part of my photography work and painting."
The 33-year-old photographer-turned-caterer had no intention of starting a company that specializes in homemade flower tortillas, vegan tamales and mole. But as word spread — between friends, customers and Instagrammers — so did demand. By November 2020, she was ready to launch.
"So many clients and customers — people really want to be in the kitchen and participate even if it's not something they're used to," Valencia said of her experience cooking professionally. "When they did, people always shared their memories with me. Recalling those memories sparks a necessary, essential feeling in us."
Life before Masa Memory
Before returning to the culinary roots planted by her "tribe of nanas" (her stepfather's mom, Nana Lola, from Mexico, her father's of Mexican and Spanish descent, born in the Southwest, and her mother's from Ireland), Valencia had a completely different life. She was a successful photographer, married and lived in New York City. But then, in 2013, her brother passed away and everything changed; in 2014, she got divorced.
"I knew I had to go and find myself. I sold everything, left New York and moved to Mexico to the Yucatán, a small village outside of Tulum," Valencia said. She lived there for five months. "It was a shift for me. I found my voice without my ex-husband, my parents, my ex-mentors in New York. I really felt free for the first time. I met amazing women in the village. I cooked with them. They became part of my family and my community living there and also just part of my healing journey."
For five years, Valencia lived nomadically, cooking on sailboats around Europe. It was difficult to find masa, but when she could, she would prepare her family recipes on these oceanic adventures. Then, two years ago, she left Italy and moved to Los Angeles.
"LA has given me the platform and this space to expand," said Valencia. "The way living in Mexico was the first chapter for me in my nomadic period in my life, LA is the new chapter of freedom. And the freedom, I realize, for me — for Masa Memory — is having freedom of home, ritual and consistency because I didn’t have that for such a long time traveling."
Masa itself is embedded in Valencia's sense of home and health. As a child, she experienced health issues and sensitivities to dairy and gluten. But she realized early on that eating corn made her body feel good.
"I realized the way forward to heal and be in control of my destiny — of what I was told my health issues were — would be through food and connecting to the land," she said. "I have several garden beds and make it a priority to eat something from it every day … to be part of the process of cooking food, it’s the most human, but also alien and wild to see a seed become the food you eat."
Beyond her personal connection with masa, the eco-conscious entrepreneur is committed to building her business with the greater good in mind. Her website houses an online tortilla shop and journal, as well as a community resource page where she shares organizations Masa Memory partners with to better the planet and the people on it.
Seed stewardship — saving, caring for and passing on seeds so they're resilient enough to produce plants in the future — is one of the company's biggest values.
"Seed stewardship is so important. We will always and forever not use GMO (genetically modified organisms) and organic. If we don’t have good healthy seeds and water, there isn’t a future for all of us," Valencia explained. "Some people think it's a bit extreme, but it's all of our reality."
Masa Memory works with Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit in her hometown of Tuscon, Arizona, that's devoted to seed stewardship to "protect and preserve the seeds of the people of the Greater Southwest." Valencia also donates some of her proceeds to the Ancestral Guard, Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, Border Kindness, the Indigenous Food Lab and Indigenous Environmental Network and Sierra Seeds to advocate for Indigenous peoples, the earth and its bounty.
The future of Masa Memory
Valencia makes all of Masa Memory's tortillas, mole and tamales with just two employees who help out on big shipping days. She recently moved from her cabin kitchen to a friend's commercial kitchen she's renting as a way to increase production and offset the restaurant's financial losses during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, she released new packaging that is 100% household compostable; before that, Valencia used her own compostable baggies and cut them to fit each tortilla.
Valencia remains unsure about shipping nationwide because of the challenge to remain fully plastic-free, but has other ventures, such as DIY masa flower kits and a sustainable clothing line, launching in the coming months.
"I always come back to our mantra when I feel torn about what's next: 'It should always be human, earth and ocean first,'" she said.
Valencia said, as a girl, she sometimes struggled with how to identify, coming from a mixed background.
"Was I Irish enough, Mexican enough or enough of everything else that made me who I was?"
But Masa Memory is the embodiment of all of her experiences and memories, her childhood spent between Arizona and Mexico, her time in Europe and the nanas who fostered her understanding of cooking, plants and roots.
"My nana would pull flowers for everything. In Indigenous and Latin American communities, many are living so connected to land and gardens," said Valencia, who studied botany and still hopes to become a botanist some day.
She hopes to open a Masa Memory farm in the near future where she can honor the land in the foods she creates — like her nanas did, like the women she once watched dye and press tortillas at a Mexican festival did.
"Flowers speak their own language, and so using them just felt natural to me," said Valencia. "Masa Memory is my interpretation of what I saw growing up in Mexico and in my family’s kitchens.