El Tortillero

Robin and I invited our neighbors David and Karina to our apartment for Mexican. We decided to make the meal entirely from scratch — no mixes, no shortcuts, no easy-ways-out, and definitely NO OLD EL PASO KITS.

We lined up a menu:

Drinks

  • Margaritas
  • Horchata

Appetizers (or “Entrees”, as they are called in Australia)

  • Tomato/habañero salsa w/ chips
  • Guacamole w/ chips
  • Mushroom quesadillas, Mexico City-style

Main

  • Chicken enchiladas with a raspberry mole sauce
  • Black beans
  • Spanish rice
  • Black bean and corn relish

Dessert

  • Pumpkin flan
  • Coffee

Now that we had a goal, this gave me impetus to make homemade tortillas, something that I have not attempted since 1994 (when I used powered sugar instead of flour, but that’s a different story), so I was determined to make them well. My heritage was on the line, even if it was represented by a flat, Mexican pancake. After having scanned the Internet for corn tortilla recipes (integral for the quesadillas and enchiladas) off to various locales I sped on a Tuesday. It involved a trip to Coles (the local supermarket), Big W (the Australian Wal-Mart), and a stop at the Indian grocery store located in Chinatown for a peep into their “South American Goods” section. (Is it just me, or do I find myself in an odd version of globalization: rummaging through the meter-wide selection of a bottom shelf displaying tins of escabeche, bottles of Tapatio, jars of mole poblano, and bags of corn tortilla mix — all made in Mexico, imported to California, then imported again to Australia — while in an Indian grocery store full of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and curious Australians, right off the pedestrian street of Chinatown lined with stores selling wares from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Thailand?)

Returning home with a messenger bag brimming with hardware and soft goods and gathering all the resources in front of me, I set to my task. Of course, ingenuity reigned, as all that I needed (fresh corn, comal, metate, molcajete, palote, tortilla press), I could not readily access. Before me lay:

  • 2 kg bag of nixtamilizado corn tortilla mix of imported ingredients packed in Australia that I bought in the Indian grocery
  • Pyrex measuring cup made in the USA
  • electric kettle made in China
  • crockery bowl from China
  • SAFE unbleached wax paper made in Australia
  • wok from Taiwan
  • empty bottle of Shiraz from the Yalumba Wine Company (Aus) as a palote/rolling pin
  • wood cutting board from Thailand
  • skillet pan made in China for a Swedish company for use as a Mexican comal
  • orange tea towel made in India and decorated with Aussie animals
  • plastic box made in China to store the tortillas

OK, OK, I will admit that took a shortcut and used a mix, but so do Mexicans (if they don’t buy their tortillas already made from the local tortilleria). I started by measuring the mix into the the bowl and added hot water (boiled in the electric kettle), mixing the two with my bare hands — YOW!! (I don’t know how my grandmothers accustomed themselves to plunging their hands into hot water on a daily basis. One never appreciates others’ efforts until one puts one’s feet in another’s moccasins, right?) I continued squishing, squashing, and squeezing the ingredients until I formed a large ball of masa.

First, I pinched a glob of masa and rolled it in my palms like Play-doh, forming an apricot-sized mini-ball. (See? The things that one learns in kindergarten do help later in life.) I set the mini-ball of masa between two sheets of wax paper resting on the cutting board, then smashed the mini-ball with the bottom of the wok to get a uniform thickness. Next, I used the empty wine bottle to roll the masa from the center, extending the diameter (and making the poor thing irregular, uh, I mean “each one was a one-of-a-kind”). After peeling the raw tortilla from between the wax paper sheets, I laid it in the hot skillet to bake. Flipping it until done, I slid it between the folds of the tea towel lying inside the plastic box. I kept doing this until all the masa became tortillas. About an hour, an hour-and-a-half later, I completed 18 tortillas. I stored the tortillas in the refrigerator for Robin’s use the next day in assembling the enchiladas. I decided to make a smaller ball of masa on Wednesday for the quesadillas. Cleaning up my mess, Robin continued to make the tomato y habañero salsa. Home made is hard work.


What would motivate someone of Mexican descent and third generation Texan (thus American) to want to make tortillas as homemade as possible for an American couple where David (the American husband) is of a British father and a German mother and Karina (the Chilean wife) is of a Ukrainian mother and a Spanish father, and Robin — she herself of Danish, Choctaw, and Irish descent? It’s the human desire to reconnect with memories. Memories of my Grandmother González making homemade flour tortillas. The bowl. The slurred puff of the stove when the gas burner lit. The whistle from the kettle of boiling water. The snow of flour on a large wooden cutting board. The
small bags of White Wings flour tortilla mix that long ago replaced the need for large calico bags of plain flour (whose cloth she used to makes clothes for her seven children). The slosh of my grandmother’s hands as she mixed the scalding H20 with the flour.

Hands in clay, she created a flour ball. Then, she would let it sit for a while, cloth covering the bowl. Returning, she would make a small army of deflated balls from the masa and line them along the edge of the cutting board furthest from her. She then heated the cast iron comal on the four-burner gas stove, wetting her hands and sprinkling drops of water from her fingertips to test if the black circle would make the drops dance vivaciously. When the drops would roll on the surface and hiss angrily, the comal achieved its required hotness.

Next, she would take a deflated ball, plop it in the center of the wood rectangle, and quickly roll the palote over it, creating an ivory disk of uniform thickness. Then, she peeled off an edge of the tortilla until she released it from the wood slate. Tossing it onto the hot comal, she would shift it with her fingertips until one side was baked and flipped it to the other side, repeating the flipping until the unleavened bread had sprinkles of honey gold on each side, indicating that it was baked to her satisfaction. At the point of ready, she would then slide it between the layers of a folded kitchen towel to keep warm as it cooled. Grandma González kept redoing the process until all the small soldiers of masa were a stack of mess hall plates. Tortillas done, we could now fill them with arroz con pollo, frijoles, migas, carne guisada, chayote con pollo, barbacoa, riñones, tripas, lengua, or anything else she cooked from the motions of her ten fingers that day.

It was this regularly occurring memory that led me to making my own batch of tortillas on that Tuesday. My grandmother and I have the same-sized hands; her palms are small with long fingers, and my palms are big with short fingers. I let the hands of my grandmother guide the memory of her tortilleridad. Thousands of kilometers away from Corpus Christi. Fifteen hours ahead of the US Central Time Zone. Seven years after her death.