Sunday, January 14, 2018

Flour Tortillas y Corazónes Que Se Inflan

Olga García Echeverría

Corazón no esperes tortillas
recién hechas a mano, redondas 
y perfectas como la cara de la luna
las mías si algun día llego a hacerlas 
saldrán cuadradas como hojas de papel 

Yesterday I read Gustavo Arellano's most recent piece in the New Yorker, “In Praise of Flour Tortillas, an Unsung Jewel of the U.S.- Mexican Borderlands” and I felt vindicated in my love and obsession for tortillas de harina.

In his article, Arellano points out that whereas tortillas de maíz are hailed as ancestral and authentic, flour tortillas are like “bastard children of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.”  For some, flour tortillas are considered not “real” Mexican food because they originated mostly in the Northern states of Mexico and as a result of European/Anglo contact and influence.

In my family we happily ate both flour and corn tortillas sans guilt or concern for authenticity. Tortillas de maíz were definitely our pan de todos los días (and also our edible utensils). However, flour tortillas were also a staple. They even had a special “treat” status. We especially liked them with chorizo con huevo, papas con chile, and as comfort food. When I felt empty and alone in the world, a warm tortilla de harina with mantequilla was everything, like a warm buttery embrace. (Can I get a witness?) Tortillas de harina con mantequila also made easy/quick and delicious after school or late night snacks.

Yesterday, after reading Arellano's article, I began remembering how much I love and miss the flour tortillas from Guaymas, Sonora, where my mother is from. The last time I was in Guaymas I visited a cousin who is a master tortilla de harina maker. She uses the basic ingredients—flour, manteca, water, and salt—and her exquisite circular creations are so thin you can hold them up to the light and almost see through them. When you put them on the hot comal, they sizzle. This, I imagine, is the manteca speaking. Once they start heating up, they do what all stellar tortillas do, they begin to rise, or as we say in Spanish, “se inflan.”

I know I'm not alone in my recent flour tortilla ponderings. Judging from all the comments and re-posts generated by Arellano's piece, tortillas de harina seem to have struck a collective chord. Areallano has taken us down Tortilla de Harina Memory Lane. It never ceases to amaze me how much food is tied to memory, el corazón, and family/culture. After sharing Arellano's article on my Facebook page, my friend Gina Aparacio commented, “My mom is originally from Tejas. We grew up eating both corn and homemade flour tortillas. I inherited my great grandmothers' rolling pin. I still use it to make tortillas myself. My mother tells stories of the foot-high stacks they would make for every meal growing up. She also shared how they would use the fabric from the flour sacks to make dresses and other clothing.”

I was immediately intrigued by Gina's comment. I went online and looked up “flour sack dresses” and found numerous articles on how in the 1930's flour sacks featured colorful patterns. Because economic times were especially difficult during the Great Depression, women took advantage of the sturdy material of food sacks and made their own clothes.

Women With Dresses Made Out of Food Sacks

Aside from the flour sack dresses, I was also intrigued by the rolling pin Gina inherited. I wanted to see what it looked like. I sent Gina a message asking if she could please share a picture of her inherited rolling pin with me for this blog, which she graciously did with the following footnote, “It looks just like a pipe. I asked my mom why and she said because of the weight. The weight of the pin makes rolling out so many tortillas bearable.”

Gina's Steel Pipe Rolling Pin: Don't Mess With Her 

In that same FB conversation, another friend, Mary Lou Valencia, also commented on growing up making tortillas de harina. She made them everyday from the age of 6-12 years old. She inherited her mother's comal and still uses it today. Like Gina's great grandmother, Mary's mother also used a steel pipe as a rolling pin or palote. Her mother's "palote was a 10 inch X 1/4 inch steel pipe" that Mary's uncle cut. Mary commented, "I used it so much it was hand smooth on both ends.”

After reading Arellano's article and Gina and Mary's comments and so many others' responses, I began to obsess on two things:

1. Not having inherited a rolling pin
2. My favorite store-bought flour tortillas this side of the border

I'll start with number 2.

My Favorite Store-Bought Tortillas This Side of the Border

Although I grew up consuming muchas tortillas de harina, I didn't grow up making them. I generally enjoy cooking, but there are some labor intensive things I have little to no interest (patience?) tackling. Tortillas fall into that bucket.

So, store bought it usually is for me. As Arellano points out, depending where you're from and what you grew up eating, your flour tortilla preferences are likely to differ, but one thing seems pretty universal these days—store bought flour tortillas usually suck. Their taste and texture are pretty uneventful, and their food labels include long dreadful paragraphs made up of unpronounceable ingredients. It's the corporate jargon of additives, preservatives, y que sé yo.

For years I was so disappointed with flour tortillas that I hardly ever bought them. This was true until I discovered flour tortillas at the Super A on Beverly Blvd in Montebello. The tortillas there are a hybrid of a hybrid. The first part of the process, where the ingredients are mixed and shaped into masa de harina balls, is mostly done by hand.

Bolas de Masa de Harina y Manos Obreras at the Super A 

The masa de harina balls are then fed into a machine and flattened and cooked.

Tortillas Coming Out of Tortilla The Super A Making Machine. (I caught one in the air!) 

They exit a conveyor belt and fall into a large metal tray, where they are eventually hand packaged.

Tortillas Recien Hechas Por Ambos Manos Obreras y La Maquina de Super A

Why I love these tortillas. Arellano mentions in his article that the trend for young middle-class Mexican Americans today is to “to seek artisan flour tortillas de agua, prepped in the airy, translucent style of the Mexican state of Sonora, with only flour, water, and salt." I don't know anything about these artisan tortillas (I will seek them out) nor can I claim to be hip to all the younger trends, but I think the Super A tortillas are the trend for people like me, just regular working folk in the hood who want a good tortilla to wrap our huevos con weenies or nopalitos in.

The tortillas at Super A are very reasonable priced and are made daily, so they are always pretty fresh.  They have the regular sized tortilla and smaller ones about the size of a corn tortilla. They seem to circulate from bakery to shelf to customer pretty quickly, which is always a good sign. The cashier at the Super A yesterday was telling me how much he loves the tortillas. While he rang me up, we swamped stories on how we eat them. His favorite way, he said, is just with butter and either a little Tapatio or homemade green salsa and "para adentro."  I've had them like that often and they are dangerously good. He said some customers share that they buy the tortillas to send off to friends in New York and other states. "Oh yeah, not everybody knows about them, but those who do, love our tortillas." The guy next to me in line, who was listening to our conversation, said we'd made him hungry and that now he was going to have to try them.

Another plus is that The Super A flour tortillas' ingredient list is relatively short and actually readable. They are made of enriched flour, water, salt, baking powder, starch, margarine, shortening, sugar, and water gum. Okay, I never said flour tortillas were actually good for you, and I don't really understand the need for sugar in the mix, but at least the ingredients are familiar and pronounceable and one can decide if this is something you can digest or not. There are also no preservatives in the tortillas, which I consider a huge plus.

Best of all, though, is how they taste. They are thin and because of this they remind me of tortillas from Guaymas. When you put them on a hot comal, they actually sizzle. I suppose this is the margarine and shortening speaking. True to a well-textured tortilla, se inflan!

Super A Tortilla Puffing Up on My Comal

I love these tortillas so much I give them as presents to my close friends and family. Christmas? Here's your pack of Super A tortillas, sisters. You're welcome. Birthday? I bought you a pack of Super A tortillas de harina. Enjoy! I also usually keep an extra pack or two in the freezer. Emergency comfort food.

Not Having A Rolling Pin or My Case of Inherited Rolling Pin Envy

I spent a good part of the day with my mother yesterday, and we talked tortillas de harina while we ran her errands. She was helping me brainstorm. We even went to buy several packs at the Super A specially for this blog. Even though I eat them often and am very familiar with them, I felt I needed to eat them again as a means to more closely connect to and write about my edible subject.

Taquito/burrito de queso fresco, aguacate, and chile

While we were test-tasting Super A flour tortillas, I started to feel an intense longing. This feeling made me eat a few extra tortillas for comfort. My mother picked up on my change of mood and asked what was wrong. I blurted out, “Quiero un palote! Pero no nuevo, antiguo! De la familia!” I sounded like a baby demanding her passed-down rolling pin. We both laughed. All day my mother had witnessed my growing tortilla de harina obsession and now it had puffed into a capricho.

"Didn't we use to have one?" I asked. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought I had childhood memories of a wooden one in the house. Maybe. Maybe not. My parents weren't big tortilla makers, so if it did exist, it's use was scant, thus the blurry recollection. My mother's face lit up and she grinned slightly. I felt my heart slowly begin to swell like a tortilla que se infla. She got up without saying a word and went into the kitchen. I followed. She opened one of the cabinets, moved a couple of things, and then pulled out an old, wooden rolling pin. I recognized it immediately and gasped. “Aquí está tu palote. Es antiguo. Es de la familia. Hora, ponte a hacer tortillas!”

Meet my "new" palote, family heirloom I didn't even remember existed and that I didn't even know I desperately wanted until yesterday. Thank you, Gustavo Arellano. Thank you, Gina. Thank you, Mary. Thank you Griselda and employees at the Super A in Montebello. Thank you, 'Ama. And, of course, thank you, flour tortilla.


Anonymous said...

Gracias Olga! I'm laughing and crying and getting up to warm up a sucky store bought flour tortilla - just because. They don't have Super A up here... still haven't found store bought tortillas that come close to my mom's or my grandma's. I also didn't get to inherit my mom's palote or my grandma's comal. They got lost in all the times we moved. Had to find mine at the thrift store... better than nothing, right?

Antonio SolisGomez said...

great article. probably all chicanos from the southwest can relate and tell stories about tortillas de harina. when my mother was first learning to roll out the balls of masa they were coming out square or trapazoid shaped. a wise old man told her 'no te preocupes nena al cabo no entran rodando. our family struggled financially but there was always un saco de harina, otro de papas y uno de frijoles. those were unforgetable meals.

Unknown said...

When I was s a kid living in San Gabriel, the parents of one of my best friends, Frankie Escobedo, owned a tortilleria in town, Pedro's Place. We would occasionally go back to the bakery part of the store where there was a conveyor belt tortilla-making machine. The operator would drop balls of masa into a chute which would turn them into flat lozenges. Then he/she would turn them and put them into another chute which made them round. The masa rounds would travel along a chain-link belt over burners that would cook them and deposit them in a pot. When the machine was idle, Frankie and I would fire it up and drop in the masa balls. But instead of turning them, we would insert them the long way and come up with three-foot long, four-inch wide tortillas which we would slather with butter and roll up into spiral wonders. We washed them down with cold milk straight from the dairy in El Monte or Double Cola, whichever was handier.

My Grandma would take apart the flour sacks and make dishcloths and lunch bags out of them.

Daniel Acosta

liz said...

Thank you for your delicious La Bloga, Olga. Your piece and Gustavo's brought back sensory-rich memories.

From the time I was an infant until the end of sixth grade when my family moved to another city, Grandma was my main caretaker during the day while Mama was at work. Two staples that could always be found in Grandma's kitchen were flour tortillas she made by hand and frijoles de la olla. (Oh, to dip one of her tortillas in a bowl of steaming frijoles right now!) Her tortillas and rolling pin--a broomstick end--appear in my poem Buñuelos:

Whenever Mama and I eat at Mexican restaurants, she orders a side of flour tortillas and butter. She sticks the butter under the tortillas. Once softened, she spreads on the butter and rolls the tortilla. Eyes gleaming, she takes a bite, careful to keep the tortilla over a plate to catch the drippings.

Thanks for the heads up on Super A. I'm going to find out if there's a similar place in my area. For now, I'm eating organic sprouted grain tortillas. Of course, they're not as good as Grandma's, but I enjoy them with almond butter and fresh apple slices. (I'm fourth generation pocha, mang! Don't hold it against me.)

When I was a young adult and first introduced to East Indian and Ethiopian food, I had no problem using nan and injera instead of utensils while my uninitiated friends fidgeted with forks. I credit this to my tortilla eating expertise.

One of my aunts still makes flour tortillas, almost as good as Grandma's, and she doesn't live far. I am overdue for a visit.

Thank you!!!

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Querida Araceli, thank you for your comment. Sabes, when I saw that palote I was ecstatic, but then I suddenly thought, "Oh no, this is like getting the baby in the Rosca!" Ha ha. We'll see what I do with my palote. I'd like to bang some politicians in the head with it. Also, some of my greatest domestic treasures I have found in thrift stores. Saludos and love to you & la familia.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Gracias, Antonio, for sharing tu comentario. Es cierto, no entran rodando. And yes, it's the simple meals--frijolitos, papas, chile, and tortillas--that I appreciate the most.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Three foot long tortillas! Fantastic! I love reading all these tortilla de harina narratives. Gracias, Daniel.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

I love all your grandma stories and your buñelos poem is a favorite. Stellar. Thank you, liz.

natasha tiwari said...

Super post and great advice