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Aunt Fanny and Tucson Tortillas

June 15, 1995|MARGY ROCHLIN

The other night I went to dinner at my cousin Janie's house. A shipment of flour tortillas from St. Mary's Mexican Food had arrived. This may sound like nothing to you, but that's because you have probably never eaten a Sonoran flour tortilla, one that is light as a lace doily and translucent as rice paper.

The flavor is so subtle that after eating one, you'll agree that the doughier, packaged tortillas you get at the supermarket should occupy an entirely different place on the food wheel. Not only that, St. Mary's Mexican Food is located 520 miles away in Tucson, Ariz. And as everyone knows, food always tastes better when it is difficult to procure.

If truth be told, there is only one unofficial exporter of these superior flour tortillas: a stylishly appointed Frequent Flyer in her mid-70s who also happens to be my Aunt Fanny.

About once a month, she gets off a plane carrying enough plastic-wrapped tortillas to be distributed among blood relatives. I'm not sure how she calculates her orders, but the equation has something to do with telephone requests multiplied by family members, then divided by how long the tortillas will stay fresh. St. Mary's tortillas contain no preservatives and have a shelf life roughly equivalent to that of a raw egg yolk. They also refrigerate poorly; a couple of days in the standard Frigidaire and a fuzzy blue mold begins its rapid march across a landscape of speckled beige. The tortillas don't freeze well either; something mysterious happens in cold storage that causes the layers of masa to fuse together for the rest of time.

As the years have passed, my aunt has done her best to keep everyone within the family circle happy. But what was once a thoughtful gesture has turned into an increasingly nightmarish operation. Somewhere along the way, the floral Lanco^me giveaway tote bag in which she stowed her perishable freight began to split at the seams. These days, my aunt can be found at Tucson International Airport dragging an aquamarine leather suitcase so heavy with tortillas that it had to be specially outfitted with wheels.

In the end, it took a non-relative to figure out how to lighten Aunt Fanny's load. At some point, I can't remember when, my aunt and La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton entered into a bilateral trade agreement, a simple barter deal involving "X" number of tortillas in exchange for "X" number of loaves of olive bread. Then one day, Nancy announced that she needed 75 dozen flour tortillas for an upcoming benefit--she was going to glaze the tortillas with spicy butter and top them with crumbles of white Mexican cheese to serve along with green albondigas soup. Aunt Fanny, of course, couldn't deliver such a huge order, but in a single phone call Nancy discovered that she could have the tortillas flown in via Federal Express. As the story goes, Aunt Fanny heard the news of this alternative transport system and wept with relief.

On occasion, my relatives and I go on scouting expeditions through town, hoping to find a flour tortilla outlet that is more geographically desirable. So far, we've come up empty-handed. In Mexico, tortilla types vary dramatically from state to state. In the southern regions, you'll only find those made of corn; in the northernmost provinces, flour tortillas are common.

St. Mary's tortillas have an even more specific pedigree: According to manager Luis Salazar, the century-old recipe originated in La Mesa, his family's tiny hometown in Sonora. As far as I know, St. Mary's is the only retail establishment that prepares the La Mesa tortillas the old-fashioned way, a two-stage process requiring a pair of women. The first woman grabs a bola , or ball of masa , and, using her fingertips, speedily pulls the dough into a disk approximately 10 inches wide. The second woman takes the disk and accomplishes the near-impossible task of massaging the dough into an almost see-through circle that is 15 inches in diameter. Next, each side of the tortilla is cooked for 15 to 20 seconds on a long piece of sheet metal placed over a series of burners to keep the heat high and even.

Everyone likes to receive proper credit for significant culinary finds, and in the name of accuracy I should explain that my cousin Janie is the one who discovered St. Mary's Mexican Food. In a particularly energized phase of her exercise history, she liked to get out of bed before dawn, jog across the Sonoran desert and up into Saguaro National Monument, then loop back home just in time for the brutal Arizona sun to make its way into a cloudless blue sky. As luck would have it, her regular 17-mile route took her past a smallish wooden shack, one always shrouded in an aromatic fog made of chilied beef, frying garlic and the homey scent of cooking masa de harina .

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