Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I've got a confession: I make my own tortillas. If you're not Mexican, this probably doesn't strike you as a particularly shocking revelation. Perhaps you think it an endearing affectation of an ethnic people who enjoy eating. If you are Mexican, but not a woman, this may strike you as a point of admiration. A Mexican man may salivate involuntarily, remembering abuela's treats, hot off the comal, slathered in butter with a sprinkling of salt, "Ten aqui mijito..." A savvy Mexican teen might wonder why their family let this time-honored tradition fall away, replaced by the thick chewy mitts from the grocery store. But it you are a Mexican woman, most likely my confession inspired a sneer and a frown, "Por que?"
For Mexican women making tortillas conjures imagery of the cook who never eats with the family. Instead she stands guard at the comal, ensuring every tortilla is piping hot. When the last of the salsa is mopped up with a triangular fragment of dough, she sits with a small bowl of supper, content that her worth is far above rubies.
Hispanic is an advertising term; Latino, political. We call ourselves Mexican. No, not even Mexican American. The Hollywood version of Latinos in east LA may be accurate, I don't know, I'm not from there. I'm from south Texas and the house I grew up in was 10 blocks from the Mexican border. In Brownsville we have drive up tortillerias, and everyone knows a lady who makes the best tamales, $6/dozen. But no one makes tortillas, not even the maids. In a community that still rejoices in the birth of a male child, tortillerias are a form of liberation -- and a return to the comal is nonsensical.
But I do it. I make tortillas. And not just for special occasions. I do it every week. I've changed it up a bit. I've substituted the lard with olive oil and often add freshly milled wheat. (Yeah, I grind that myself, in a hand mill.) It's not all old school -- no one eats until all the tortillas are ready. I ditched the comal-guarding aspect of the process. Instead, hot tortillas are rolled like miniature carpets and tucked into a foil-lined cloth for insulation. Nothing tastes like a homemade tortilla. The taste is singular. As with homegrown tomatoes or the summer's first swim, it is to be savored and acknowledged as the goodness it embodies.