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The Tortilla Life


Maiz o harina? Corn or flour? To this perennial question, one that can sometimes denote the character of a man--would a true Mexican ever turn down a freshly made corn tortilla?--most members of my family usually answer "flour."

In our family, corn tortillas came from the supermarket, but flour tortillas have always been made fresh by my grandmother whenever we've gotten together. It is her I think of whenever I eat a well-made one, and her I still go to for tortilla advice.

As she works her strong hands into a mass of tortilla dough, I daydream about the future, when my daughter will be old enough to understand the tortilla lessons demonstrated by my grandmother almost daily before her big, happy eyes.

I ask my grandmother why it is that she always makes flour tortillas, never corn.

"Because they're the worst for you," she says with a wink. "I don't know why," she goes on, "but somehow the things that are bad for you are the ones we like the most."

With her grip firm on the dough, she swipes the sides of the bowl clean of flour and says, " Ay mia , you know most of the time I don't use oil or lard in my tortillas. They're fattening that way."

Instead, my grandmother has devised a trick for making tortillas without adding much fat at all: She rubs her hands with a little vegetable oil, as if she were applying some lovely perfumed lotion, then sets about kneading her dough.

"Of course, they taste best with lard," she says, a hint of sadness in her voice. "Crisco is excellent too." On certain special occasions, she will fatten up her tortillas, but this morning, for an ordinary breakfast, it's best to be prudent.

Now my grandmother takes the dough and squeezes a small bit through her fist. In an instant, she's got a small army of dough balls, each miraculously the same size and ready for shaping. With a quick two-handed motion that resembles something you might do if you were having trouble opening a tightly shut jar, she flattens the underside of each piece of dough while simultaneously guiding the ball in a circle, as if it were a teeny steering wheel. "You want to make sure you flatten the edges," she explains. "The center, you never have to worry about."

When she's worked through each piece of dough, she drapes a kitchen towel over everything and says, "Now we let them rest."

As she rests, my grandmother tells me how she remembers watching--and asking to help--her mother make tortillas every morning. "She used to grind the corn herself to make the dough," my grandmother says. But it's her mother's flour tortillas that stir her memory.

"I remember one day when my mother got sick and my father made tortillas for us. He went into the kitchen. He rolled up his sleeves. He washed his hands, his face and his arms, and he made flour tortillas. I was 3 years old and I was so proud of him. I mean, he was so used to having everything done for him. When he would wash, my mother would have the water ready for him and she would stand there with a towel, waiting for him to finish so she could hand it to him. That's the way women were in those days."

When my grandmother married my grandfather here in Los Angeles she almost always made flour tortillas for him. "Because by then," my grandmother says, "that's what my mother made and that's what his mother made. That's what we all preferred."

My grandfather must have approved--right after they were married, he made my grandmother her own rolling pin, especially for tortillas. "Oh, I've had this since I was 18," she says as she briskly rolls a piece of dough into a tortilla. "In fact he made two for me, just in case I lost one. Of course, I never did."

She slaps the rolled tortilla back and forth a few times between her hands, then lays it on the black iron griddle that has been warming since she started the dough.

"I suppose you don't really have to pat flour tortillas," she says. "It's kind of an old habit, something that you do a lot with corn tortillas to stretch them. But even with flour, it's good to let the tortillas stretch out a little more.

"You know," she says, warmed up, ready to bestow upon her granddaughter once more the kitchen tips she's been teaching for years, "if the tortilla starts to puff up as it cooks, you can press it down with a kitchen towel. That's just something we always used to do."

With the tips of her fingers, she lifts the tortilla off the griddle and onto my plate. "When you've been making tortillas awhile," she says, "you can stand the heat."


3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons vegetable shortening, lard or oil, optional

About 1 cup lukewarm water

Mix flour, baking powder and salt together in mixing bowl. Blend in shortening. Gradually stir in water until crumbly dough forms. Work dough with hands until dough holds together. Shape into ball on floured board. Knead ball of dough until smooth.

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