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Tortillas elbow bread off U.S. tables

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Is it goodbye, Wonder Bread?

There hasn't been such a ruckus since salsa surpassed ketchup as the condiment of choice in America. Tortilla sales now top sandwich bread sales across the nation, prompting Congress to declare September as "National Tortilla Month."

Americans are now buying $6 billion worth of tortillas a year, besting the sales of familiar fare from Arnold, Pepperidge Farms and other brands. It is a cultural moment of sorts, and a complicated one.

"Yes, there is a connection with that moment when salsa overtook ketchup on the nation's tables a few years ago," said Jim Kabbani, executive director of the Tortilla Industry Association, which officially will share the good news at the National Press Club on Thursday and will host a national convention for more than 1,000 tortilla-centric manufacturers and suppliers in Las Vegas next week.

"There are two drivers at work here. One is changing demographics; witness the growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S., either through birth or immigration. Secondly, people are adopting healthier eating habits, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds," Mr. Kabbani said.

Could the advent of the uber-tortilla be a threat to some in these hypersensitive times - as "French" fries were in the years shortly after Sept. 11?

"People's reaction to these types of developments reflect their overall values. If they celebrate diversity, then they're going to say, 'Wow that's great.' If they are negative towards diversity, they think it's not so great," Mr. Kabbani observed.

Food, ethnic and otherwise, is a favorite theme for timely marketing designations. July is National Hot Dog Month. Pizza and popcorn belong to October, chocolate to February, oatmeal to January and asparagus to May. A Republican lawmaker sponsored the recent resolution to devote the ninth month of the year to flour and corn tortillas.

"I would like to recognize September as National Tortilla Month to highlight the contributions and hard work of this important industry," said Rep. Devin Nunes of California.

Yet some are annoyed over possible stereotyping. Guanabee.com, a New York-based blog that addresses Hispanic pop culture and gossip, questioned why the association automatically linked tortillas with Hispanics - and why the announcement was staged during "National Hispanic Month."

"On the one hand: Good for tortillas. On the other: We're still going to probably buy both. Ok? We're not going to go out and buy a tortilla - or a can of beans or a serape or a bottle of hot sauce or a pair of maracas or whatever - because some business tells us it's somehow integral to our Latinoness,"noted associate editor Alex Alvarez. "For that, we'll eat a hot dog. ON SANDWICH BREAD."

Meanwhile, tortilla artisans will attempt to break the world's record by building a mammoth tortilla that is more than 14-feet wide at next week's convention, according to Mr. Kabbani.

"I am sure we'll see some innovations next week. With the price of corn going up due to public interest in ethanol, there could be some new technology appearing," he said. "And whether we see something like a soy-based tortilla remains to be seen. We have Asian members, however. We'll see what they come up with."

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