Tortilla Memories

     I woke up this morning missing my mama so much and with tortillas on the brain. I dreamt all night long that we were in her kitchen side by side preparing a meal for the family. The smells and flavors were so real that I swear to you I had butter and tortilla breath when I woke up.

     I tried for the first two hours of my morning to get the tortillas out of my head, but after a very hard struggle and a call to my sister to distract myself, I dramatically threw myself on the floor and screamed, “You’ve won tortillas!! I shall make you and I will endeavor to finish making all eight-dozen without eating the first. Darn you, darn you all to heck!!” My husband Eliseo clapped his hands from his position by the back door and excitedly exclaimed, “Yes! I’m calling the kids over. They can bring frijoles (beans) and carne (meat). Make plenty cariño!” and he was gone to make phone calls.

     I grinned and quickly vacuumed and dusted; not much needed doing since I cleaned seven days a week. Eliseo and Tomas, my brother-in-law, set up the grill, tables and chairs in the back yard. They were humming and laughing; I loved how having family over made my husband so happy…so okay, I was pretty happy myself.

     I took out the flour, baking powder, butter flavored shortening and salt and warmed up some water for the tortillas. I love my tortillas a bit spicy, so I also added a dash of black pepper. After I’d mixed all the ingredients together, I kneaded the dough for a while, then covered it and let it rest for a bit while I started to prepare the pico de gallo. Pico is a staple in my family; a meal is not a meal unless accompanied by a nice fresh, zesty pico. I’d diced the onion and fresh jalapeño and chopped up the cilantro and tomato and had quartered the lemons before starting on the garlic. The first slice into the garlic brought out the most wonderful scent that always reminded me of my mama’s kitchen. If they bottled this scent and called it Eau de Garlic, or as my eldest daughter called it, ‘Eww de Stinky Garlic’, I would wear it every day; yeah, I loved the aroma of the pungent garlic that much. Can you just imagine the awesome scents I’d be wearing? Oh yeah, I’d smell like a Mexican kitchen 24/7.

     The phone rang, momentarily distracting me, and my older brother Neto informed me he’d be bringing some diet coke for me since I’m diabetic and an assortment of other drinks and wondered if there was anything else I needed. Wow, all this because I was making tortillas? Anyway, I gave him a list of things to bring and got back to my tortillas.

     I turned up my music and started rolling out tortillas to the beat of TobyMac’s Get Back Up. I’d give the dough a good roll, give it a quarter turn, tap my feet a couple of times and repeat. I rolled out six before placing them on my nice big comal (griddle) and no sooner did they start browning, then I was gently enveloped in the scent and back in my mama’s kitchen.

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     I was seventeen years old and had finally started to work this year over much protest from my papa who said I was way too young to be out in the working world. I’d arrived home from work really tired and had just wanted to crash. Working at Lee’s Electronics was a tiring and torturous job. I worked on a line making lights for semi trucks. I stood for four and a half hours, took a thirty-minute break and stood for another four and a half hours making these lights. The pieces were so sharp that I always ended up going through 6 pairs of gloves per day.  The gloves were little protection against the sharp edges and by the end of the day my fingers were swollen, the tips all cut up and my hands and feet were hurting badly. I couldn’t believe I had actually made it to the weekend and boy was I ever looking forward to it! My mama and papa had invited my brothers and sisters over for the holiday weekend. We had four whole days together and would be able to have family altar together the way we used to when everyone was at home. Mama had already had all the guitars restrung and the piano tuned and papa’s beautiful dark red congas were all shined up and the skins had been replaced.

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     It felt like I’d barely closed my eyes when I heard mama calling from the bottom of the stairs, “¡Ya estan aqui! They’re here!”

     “Hurry up sleepy head,” my little brother Roman called excitedly on his way down.

      It had been several months since we’d all gotten together because even though we all lived in the same state, there just never seemed to be enough time to visit each other.

     We lived in a huge old house with eight bedrooms, so there were always bedrooms available for sleepovers. Even though my brothers and sisters had married and moved out mama refused to change the rooms. She’d said the bedrooms were for when her hijos came over to visit and for whoever might be in need of a place to sleep. The pastor called our house, “The Rest for the Weary Inn,” with mama as its angel.

     Papa and mama’s favorite room was the family room with French windows that papa had built just for her. Mama loved this room and spent most of her time in there and had placed her keyboard and all her other instruments in it.  It faced the big backyard and led right out into the big stone patio. Papa had built a wooden playground set for the grandkids and had added a small pond with Koi fish. Mama said the back yard was a dream come true.

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     There were screams of pleasure as my nieces and nephews, along with my sisters and sisters-in-law came rushing in the door. Everyone was hugging each other and there were kisses galore going around the room and mama was doing her cheek pinching routine and you could hear my sister Nelli’s youngest complaining, “Not so hard Abuela! You’re gonna break my face.” Mama also loved to bite cheeks, but this she saved for my brothers and sisters. My sisters were squealing as they attempted, but failed to escape being chomped on and my brothers just went straight up to mama and waited their turn, so they could hug the stuffing out of their mamacita.

     As always my brothers began an arm wrestling contest to see who was strongest and while mama set out supper for everyone papa brought out the hard stuff for everyone to drink…big glass bottles of Coca Cola.

     After hours of eating, talking, and reminiscing the kids were starting to yawn and mama herded all her chiquitos (little ones) to the room she’d prepared and put them all to bed. I was so tired I called out goodnight and went upstairs to curl up on my bed and I was dead to the world until morning.

***********

   Friday and Saturday were busy. We went to the zoo, hit the museum, and had a cookout at the Highwell Forest Preserve and Saturday night we took in a concert at the park. And every meal was spent trying to out cook each other, but mama won every time. At night before we hit the sack, papa would get us all into the family room and he’d take out his Bible and we’d have family altar. He’d read a story and he’d explain what the story was about and how it applied to the present and to us. Afterward, we all grabbed an instrument and we sang before closing with a prayer.

     Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful and mama woke everyone up at 7:30 singing her loudest. She’d knock at our doors; sing a verse and say, “Well, how does the next one go?” And if we didn’t start singing right away she opened the door and let my nephews pounce on us. My brothers deliberately couldn’t remember the verses, so the attack was on.

     Mama loved it when we went to church as a family and every night she would pray that her little lambs that had gone astray would somehow; someway find their way back. We joked that if one wanted mama she could be found on her knees any time of the day or night.

     As everyone readied themselves, mama made a big breakfast of tortillas, huevos con chorizo (eggs with Mexican sausage) and papas (potatoes) and plenty of jalapeños and then we were off to Temple Emmanuel.

     The worship songs were mighty powerful and prepared our hearts and minds for the coming message as we sang Jesus Lover of My Soul, How He Loves and Beautiful One. I had to admit that they went so perfectly with it.

     We enjoyed the message Pastor Randall brought based on Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  The message was powerful and you could have heard a pin drop amidst the occasional ‘Amen!’

  Right after the pastor had dismissed everyone with a prayer, mama took the microphone from him and announced, “All of my kids are to come to my house after this service and I mean all of you. You hear me?” Everyone laughed and Pastor Randall invited himself, his wife, the deacons and their wives over as well. Mama was so happy she was practically floating as she walked out the front door of the church.

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      As usual, we didn’t have only tortillas, it was full out carb  attack  fest. Mama  made refried,  refried  beans, arroz  rojo  con  aceitunas  (red rice with olives)  and  papas  con queso  y  salsa (potatoes chunks sautéed with onions, teensy bits of garlic and bacon and huge  chunks  of  sharp  cheddar and homemade salsa) and  ground  beef enchiladas with tons of cheese.

     Papa came in from out back where the older men had been playing dominoes and stood behind mama and tried to snatch a, fresh off the comal, tortilla.

     “Ay Marina, mi amor (oh, my love), all those pobres hombres (poor men) out there are so envious that I have una esposa (a wife) that can cook como un angel (like an angel).” Yep, that was my papa speaking what we call Spanglish, a combination of Spanish and English.

    With her cheeks flushing and her eyes sparkling, mama said, “Basta ya Antonio, you’re embarrassing me!” Papa just laughed and hugged her tightly from behind. I rolled my eyes, “Oh for goodness sakes consigan un cuarto (get a room), will ya?” Mama giggled like a teenager, the way she always did around papa.

     The kitchen was pure chaos with the kids trying to filch tortillas and twelve women looking through the fridge and the cabinets for ingredients. Pretty soon our Tuscan/Mexican flavored kitchen didn’t feel so large anymore. The large island papa had built for mama, in front of her black antique stove, and every other bit of counter space available was being used as all the women busied themselves grating massive amounts of cheese, made pico de gallo, rolled out tortillas, cut up lemons and olives, browned the ground beef, made salsa, and sweet potato and apple empanadas (pastries) and smashed the beans before refrying them.

     Mama had tried to make her refried beans healthier since papa’s heart scare, so now she used either a little bit of olive or canola oil to refry the beans. Mama had always fried two pounds of bacon and would leave half a pound back to use in the beans later and the rest she’d use for other things. All the fat that had been left she had used to fry and refry the beans. She would add salt, pepper, onion, minced garlic and cilantro and she would refry those babies to within an inch of their delicious lives before she was satisfied. I’d kid her that Pepe, Julian, Simon and Mateo (the names I’d given some of the beans), were going to press charges at Bean Torture and Hostage Headquarters for their mistreatment. She would always say, “Grab a clean spoon. Now taste. Well?”

     “Eh forget Pepe, Julian, Simon and Mateo. We’re eating this!” I loved playing this game and anyway, mama needed a taste tester, or so I told myself.

     This was a very Mexican family, in spite of our being 4th, 5th and 6th generation Americans. The women cooked, cleaned, laughed, told secrets and hugged each other in the kitchen, while the men sat outside and played cards and dominoes, played their guitars and harmonicas. They were also in charge of grilling the succulent pieces of arracheras (skirt steak) that mama had been marinating in lemon, salt, pepper, garlic and cilantro for the past three days. Of course they also talked football.

     My brothers were avid Dallas Cowboy fanatics and sometimes during games I’d wonder if they’d gone into labor with all the groaning, yelling and screeching going on. Yup, they were hardcore fans and I always thought it was hysterical that when they talked about a certain play they’d always say, “I can’t believe we made that stupid play!! What the heck were we thinking!!?” They always acted as if they were part of the team. I’d given up trying to understand their minds, because they couldn’t really understand mine either. They’d sworn off Super Bowl parties after the last one they’d gone to. Little brother said super bowl parties were just an excuse to eat and talk and no one actually understood or watched the game.

     The backyard was now full of men, playing games, singing and grilling arracheras. Now this is what made my mama happy, having a house full of people.

     We were finally done preparing all the food and together we womenfolk had rolled out about 200 tortillas; quite a feat for twelve women in one kitchen. Mama had the men take the tables and chairs out of the store room and set them up on her large stone patio, as well as set up the tents so no one would get sunstroke and had them prepare the chimineas and torches for when it got darker. When my mama invited you over for lunch she usually meant; lunch, supper and possibly breakfast as well.

     The entire family sat down to eat and before anyone could touch anything mama said, “If you touch anything before the blessing, I’m uninviting you to my house!” Papa just shook his head and smiling began to pray, “We thank You Father God for the privilege of family and friends and for the gift of same. We thank You for the food on our tables and the roof over our heads, but more importantly we thank You for the gift of Your Son Jesus Christ. Father, we know that every morsel we put in our mouths, every article of clothing we put on our backs and the jobs that we have, that enable us to take care of our families is only possible through Your love and amazing grace. We thank You for the time we get to spend together in fellowship, because we get to lift up and encourage each other; and all this because You love us. In Your precious name we honor and glorify You Daddy, Jehovah Jireh. Amen!”

     All around the table you could hear the heartfelt ‘Amens,’ and then a plaintive voice, “Mommy, I hungry! I eat now?”

     It was a wonderful lunch; the food as usual was perfection. We sat and ate and lunch slowly passed into supper and still the feasting continued.

     The sun had gone down and two of the deacons had long since gone home. My sisters-in-law, sisters and nieces were putting the kids to bed in whatever bedroom mama had assigned them.

     It was past midnight when Pastor Randall got up and stretched wide. “Ah, this was a perfect day. I think heaven is going to be like this.” He and his wife Livy, lived a block over from our house and were offering beds to anyone who might need one.

     Mom looked up at everyone and sighed in pleasure, “Before anyone else leaves, let’s have a song! Cari,” she called out to me, “what would you like to sing?”

     I’d been listening to the same song for days and I quietly asked for ‘Give Me Jesus’ by Fernando Ortega. My older brothers Bernie and Neto grabbed the congas and a harmonica and my younger brother Roman, his guitar. My sister Margarita passed out the shakers and handed mama and Nelli each a tambourine, then grabbed the harpsichord for herself. Dad, Roman and I began singing and when we got to the chorus we split up into three-part harmony and everyone else joined in.

 

Give Me Jesus

Verse 1

In the morning when I rise

In the morning when I rise

In the morning when I rise

Give me Jesus.

Chorus:

Give me Jesus

Give me Jesus

You can have all this world

But give me Jesus

Verse 2

And when I am alone

And when I am alone

And when I am alone

Give me Jesus


Chorus


Verse 3

And when I come to die

And when I come to die

And when I come to die

Give me Jesus


Chorus


Tag

You can have all this world

You can have all this world

Just give me Jesus


     We lost ourselves in the music, the words and the feeling of the song; it was so beautiful and when the last note had faded away, I opened my eyes and saw tears and the wonder of knowing how much Jesus loves us on everyone’s faces.

     We sang three more songs, ending with another of my favorites, the Happy Song by Martin Smith and every instrument and voice rejoiced. I really think heaven will be like this!

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    I was startled back to awareness as my husband planted a huge kiss on me and cuddled me close to him. I looked up at him smiling and thanked God for giving me a God fearing man who’s first love was God, because that made him a better husband and father.

     I’d met Eliseo on my 19th birthday and a year later we were married. He had been the associate pastor at our church and had taken over when Pastor Randall had retired eight years ago.

     The time that we had spent together that Sunday had been so wonderful that pastor had continued to do it every Sunday and now Eliseo and I continued that tradition taking turns with my sister Margarita and her husband.

     My brothers and sisters with their families had moved closer to home and now we all attended church together. I learned through experience why mama had spent all her time on her knees for her children and just as God had blessed her faithfulness, He had blessed mine. Our children were all in church, not because they felt forced to be there, but because Christ was the center of their lives.

     My parents had been gone a few years now, but the love and fellowship we enjoyed not just with each other, but also with friends and neighbors was because mama and papa had shown us that with Christ in our lives we could love everyone.

     I looked out my kitchen doors and sighed with pleasure at the sight of my brothers, sisters, their families and my own, as well as friends and neighbors gathered there and my eyes filled with tears of happiness. I looked at my husband and kissing his nose said, “Let’s go eat,” and hand in hand we walked out into the sunshine.

**************

Tortillas

3 1/2 c. all purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

7 tbsp shortening or cold butter or 3.5 oz. of canola oil

1 c of warm water

1 tsp of black pepper (optional)

1. Wash your hands really well first, because you’ll have your hand all up in this. (smile) And also warm up your comal (griddle).

2. Mix together your flour, salt and baking powder and black pepper.

3. Add your shortening and hand mix until the flour starts looking kind of crumbly.

4. Slowly add your warm water. Add water 1/4 cup at a time until the dough has become stretchy, but not stickly.

5. Make your testales (I have no idea how you say this in English), shape the dough so that it looks like a mushroom cap. You should be able to get 12 large or 18 small out of this.

6. Now using your rolling pin begin to roll out your dough. Make sure you flour the surface a bit before placing your dough on it. Now put the rolling pin in the center of the dough ball and roll up and away from you. Pick up the dough and give it a 1/4 turn and repeat. Continue this until the dough is the size you want and round.

7. Place on your comal (griddle) until you see little round pockets forming on the surface. Turn it over and brown the other side. You should see pockets on that side as well as it browns.

8. Don’t be disappointed if your first tortilla looks like a star, a frog or something alien. Mine looked like…well, never mind!

Enjoy making these, but if you want to cheat you can go to your local store and buy tortilla flour, then all you have to do is add water, but that takes all the fun out of it. 😉

PS: Rolling them out to music gives you a rhythm to work with and makes it much easier to roll these babies out. Try it!

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4 responses to this post.

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    • Thanks for the visit and the comment Maxine! Sorry it took so long to get back to you, but I’m in the middle of preparing for a particularly serious surgery so I’ve been concentrating really hard on getting ready for it.
      Have a wonderfully blessed week! 🙂

      Reply

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