Tortillas Hecho de Mano...A lesson Learned?
An excerpt from Chile Town (Órale Press 2019), Chapter 6. Available on Amazon:
Blanca’s mama was all business when it came to work. And she knew it would be a long weekend preparing for the annual Festival de Chile Corazon. Her Mama had brought Blanca to assist her primas who had been dropped off earlier in making tortillas for the first time.
Tia Lula was the family expert tortilla maker and all the tortillas made this day were to be sold at the festival to raise church funds. “Tia Lula has already prepared the masa for tortillas and will start to make them with you girls.” Explained Mamá, as they entered the house. As they neared the kitchen, Blanca could hear the familiar voices of her primas, Gata y Chata.
“It is already 4pm in the afternoon.” Gata and Chata plead insincerely, “Tia, why do we have to make these, we’re tired already.”
“Ya cállense, mentirosas! You haven’t done anything all day but giggle, stare in the mirror and sit on your butt texting your friends. I’m the one who is tired and you all need to help make these tortillas for the festival. If you don’t, then you don’t eat! Me entienden cabezonas?”
Tia Lula, hugs Blanca and speaks more softly, “I know Blanca wants to learn how to make tortillas de harina. Verdad, mija?” Blanca wisely nods in agreement.
“Calmese Tia, we were just teasing.” Gata y Chata chant in unison as they giggle over their mini-rebellion. Three pugnacious 16-year old’s whose family originated in Guanajuato; Mexico, were now being formally introduced to the centuries old tradition of their Indio ancestors - hechando tortillas de mano!
Tia Lula has the masa in front of her on a large wooden cutting board. She had three smaller cutting boards already placed in front of Blanca, Gata and Chata on the large kitchen table. There tortilla education was about to begin.
Like a Marine Drill Instructor, Tia Lula starts the tortilla drill, “Miren malcriadas, agáren una bola de masa en sus manos y put it over here on the left corner of the board.” As she grabs some masa from the center of the table, Blanca and Gata follow her lead but Chata is distracted staring at her cell phone.
“Chata put that phone down or I’ll take it!” Tia Lula barks, as she points her finger at Chatas phone – her surrogate eye and ear to the world. Chata quickly slips the phone in her back pocket, like a junkie hiding her precious dope and grabs for some masa.
Tia Lula nods affirmatively as the girls follow her instructions, grabbing masa and forming it into little balls. “Muy bien, otra vez.” The girls continue to follow their Tia’s lead until half their boards have little masa balls on them.
Tia Lula, tosses flour dust on her board and rolling pin and begins the enchanting sound of rolling a masa ball with the pin. “Ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta,” like a percussionist in a salsa band keeping a steady beat, Tia Lula maintains a focused rhythm on the masa creation in front of her. Alternately drawing and rolling the pin to the left and right, stretching the masa into a circular masterpiece. With every other quick roll, she skillfully scoops the tortilla over kneading it again with the pin and creating a perfect work of culinary art.
The girls marvel at the creation of a perfect tortilla de harina. Blanca her eyes, a wonder, as the tortilla creation seems to be forming in slow motion. The flour dust floating like fairy dust off each hit of the pin “Ta-ta, ta-ta” and the aromatic scent of a tortilla cooking on the comal as it bubbles and chars its soft skin to an earthy delight. Blanca had seen this happen every day at home but today it seemed magical. Like all the ancient indigenous cultures had joined them in preparing the staple of life that was once maize but now had become harina, en los estados unidos.
Blanca is suddenly awakened from her tortilla trance. “Ok, Changitas, let’s see you do it. Here are your pins.” Quips Tia Lula, as she hands over the sacred ancient weapon of culinary delight – the rolling pin.
All three girls begin to roll their pins. Gata forgets to sprinkle flour dust on the board and pin causing her tortilla to stick to the pin and fall apart.
Chatas tortilla looks like the state of Texas – spread out with arrogant disregard for form. Blanca’s tortilla was almost perfectly round…except it had wrinkles and a gaping hole in it.
The girls laugh at each other’s work but quickly start another. Each wanting to make a perfect tortilla before the other can. But none having the skill or ability to match Tia Lula’s creations which she proceeds to duplicate in rapid succession without error.
Blanca curious about the origin of the tortilla and impressed by the skill level of her Tia, asked, “Who invented this?” Tia Lula, a bit startled by the inquiry looks at her and reflects for a moment and then responds, “Hungry people that didn’t have forks.” The girls all laugh but remain fixated on their own laborious creations.
Tia Lula suddenly becomes reflective. “Mija, seriously that is a good question. All things important in life are simple yet are also part of the complex fabric of our lives.”
“Whaaat?” Gata y Chata sing out in ignorant unison.
“Tontas, cállesen ya! Open your ears for once!” Barks, Tia Lula. She continues as Blanca earnestly listens, “Tortillas were created centuries ago by your ancestors, los Mayans, Olmecas y Aztecas in Central America y Mexico. Tortillas sustain life using only what mother earth provided, water and maize. As time passed, they went from being our eating utensils – picking food up – to becoming part of our Mexican staple in recipes like chilaquiles or enchiladas.”
Tia Lula notices that the girls are quiet now and listening intently. “Aqui en este lado, we make tortillas de maize y de harina.” Tia Lula’s eyes soften as she looks at Blanca and continues, “But making tortillas is not the only lesson I wanted you all to learn today.”
“What do you mean?” Blanca asks, as Gata and Chata lean forward to hear. “The masa ingredients have to be mixed carefully and then kneaded by hand to prepare the masa to rise. It is protected with a towel before it is time to make them. It is the same with you…we teach, feed and protect you as children to be ready and rise up to become young adults. Pero, como tortillas, no somos lo mismo. Each of us has been pulled and stretched a little different, all influenced and prepared for life differently.”
Gata and Chata stare at each other smiling and start giggling. “Hijas de tu Padre! Cállense ya and pay attention!” Shouts Tia Lula.
The room goes quiet and the girls stare at Tia Lula as she grabs another bola of masa and massages it in her fingers. The girls can see her blood vessels protruding from the top of her small leathery hands that surrounds the masa. It is not age they see, it is strength.
As Tia Lula lowers her head staring at the masa, she continues, “There is a time when the masa is ready to be made into a tortilla, like your readiness to be a young lady."
Tia Lula, looks up at them affectionately. “Dime? Will you be in the best shape, without falling apart like your tortilla, with no wrinkles in your character, or holes in your cabezas?”
Gata, Chata and Blanca stare silently into the peering eyes of Tia Lula. All three of them have a feeling that Tia Lula somehow knows the bad things they have done in their short lives. But how could she know?
Tia Lula breaks the uncomfortable silence, with a piercing look at the girls, “Ya veremos, verdad?” The three girls gaze at Tia Lula’s all-knowing eyes. Tia Lula breaks their stare, “Bueno ya, fregonas! Hagan las tortillas!”
All the girls are quiet now, focusing on their tortilla creations and thinking about their future.