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Under the Amate Tree : A Time for Tortas

November 09, 1995|JUANA VaZQUEZ GoMEZ

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, Friday afternoon was the time to prepare for the weekend trip to the countryside. The whole house would be turned upside down and the kitchen, with its frenzied atmosphere, became the center of our world.

I will never forget those indescribable scents coming from that large room with tall stone walls, reminiscent of a monastery. Although it was equipped with very modern aluminum furniture and cabinets, the stove was topped with the traditional clay pots called cazuelas that held chicken bubbling in mole, another clay pot of black beans and a flat black comal, or griddle, to toast the chiles, tomatoes, garlic and onions for the salsa.

My mother was always busy supervising the work at the kitchen: Sending someone to the bakery to buy teleras and bolillos , the rolls required to prepare tortas , and making sure the car was properly packed with pillows, blankets, sheets and all those things one needs for a weekend in the countryside.

My brother, my sister and I were each allowed to invite one friend to spend the weekend at the ranch. On Fridays we'd make fast decisions on whom to invite and get the permissions from our friends' parents.

My father was a doctor in the small, picturesque town of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. A lover of nature, he used to say that if he didn't leave the town for the countryside, he could not stop thinking about the patients he had seen throughout the week. In those days, doctors would pay home visits to their patients regardless of the day and time.

He was the physician in charge of the garrison of the Mexican army stationed in Cuernavaca. Then he became the doctor of the poor--and the rich.

My father refused money for his services if the patients were poor; they paid him instead in their own way. Because most of them lived on ranches, the gifts were usually edible: chicken, lamb, rabbits. Even some parrots and a big tarantula in a jar made their way to our house.

Fortunately for the well-being of the family, there were also many patients who paid him with money, sometimes even U.S. dollars.

Starting in the 1930s, many famous foreigners settled in Cuernavaca. Authors like Malcolm Lowry and D.H. Lawrence wrote novels in that sun-splashed setting. Later on, in the '50s, there was a romance about the town that lured actors like Tyrone Power, heiress Barbara Hutton andpsychologist Erik Fromm. Because Cuernavaca was still a relatively small town and my father spoke English fluently, some of these celebrities made him their doctor.

For our weekend outings, my father would take us all to Chiconcuac, a tiny town not far away in the state of Morelos, for a respite of fresh air, good food and relaxation. At the very center of the ranch there were two magnificent amate trees under whose shade we would eat. There was also a mango orchard that ended at a magnificent 18th-Century aqueduct built by the Spaniards. Underground springs ran throughout the town, and we were lucky to have two streams crossing our property.

The ranch was modest and simple, equipped with only the bare essentials. There was a small adobe construction with three small bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen with a wood-burning stove. To keep things cool in the warm tropical weather, we carried a German portable refrigerator. The rustic environment taught my mother to be practical and bring along the kind of food that would survive the heat and the trip.

We would leave Cuernavaca on Friday evening, and always our first stop in Chiconcuac was the small grocery store named Al Pasito Pero Llegan (Slowly But Surely They Come).

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For us children, it was the place where we could buy delicious sweet bread, pan dulce , sprinkled with pink sugar. We would eat the sweet bread with chiles cuaresmenos en escabeche , pickled jalapen~os, prepared by Dona Lolita, wife of Don Filomeno, the owner of the small shop and the most respected man in the tiny town. My father always had something to talk about with Don Filomeno.

Once we were settled in the house, we could hardly wait to eat the big item of the weekend: the tortas prepared in the house in Cuernavaca and brought along to Chiconcuac wrapped in napkins and packed in wicker baskets.

One of the principal ingredients for an authentic torta mexicana is the telera , a cousin of the bolillo, a distant cousin of the French baguette. Teleras are sold throughout Los Angeles and are recognized by their shape, which resembles a tortoise shell.

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