Photo: Celia Catalino
Growing up in a Mexican-American family, many people always assumed that Taco Tuesday was every night in our house. Truth be told, though, we really only got around to making tacos at home once or twice a year. The Mexican food I grew up eating and sharing with my countless cousins, and aunts and uncles, was more along the lines of Caldo de Res, a hearty beef soup, and Coctel de Camaron, Mexico’s answer to shrimp cocktail. I can still see the look of disapproval on my mom’s face when I once told her that burritos had to be real Mexican food because they were on the menu of every Mexican restaurant in town. She taught me to love our cuisine for both its simplicity and complexity, and to appreciate it for its profound uniqueness. She often mentioned that the world had our ancestors to thank for the invention of chocolate and vanilla, although those two things were clearly the doing of Mother Nature and not man. Food was vital to our culture, and just like our language, she was not going to let me forget it.
It’s pretty safe to say that the backbone to every Mexican meal is the tortilla. No matter what you’re eating, no matter what time of day you’re eating it, a plate of warm tortillas, perfectly stacked and folded into a cloth napkin, is always at the table. I have fond memories of filling up on tortillas and completely neglecting everything else that was on my plate. I looked forward to tortillas as if they were some kind of special treat that I rarely got to indulge in, despite the fact that I probably ate more tortillas than I did anything else. Every Christmas, my grandmother would stay with us for a week and always pack a container full of homemade tortillas. Even into adulthood, I couldn’t imagine Christmas without those perfectly crafted tortillas, nor did I want to.
My mom’s sister, my Tia Alma, lived close by in L.A. while I was growing up. I spent many weekends (and even weeks in the summer) of my childhood at her house playing with my cousins, and getting away with mischief that would never fly at my own house. There are so many things I remember about my countless days spent in that house, but the one thing that burns in my memory, which tugs at my heartstrings, is how perfectly my Tio Raul would roll up a tortilla.
I couldn’t have been much older than my daughter is now (3 ½) when I first noticed my Tio’s magic touch. I was raised with traditional Mexican manners, which meant that as a child, I never reached for anything at the table without either politely asking, or being asked by an adult. So I’d hawk-eye the tortillas, while patiently waiting for my uncle to ask, “Quieres una tortilla, mija?” In an awkward and kid-like way, I’d ferociously nod my head, and he’d pull a single tortilla out of the hot and steamy pile. Not having callused grownup hands, he’d cool the tortilla down for me by carefully tossing it back and forth from hand to hand. It wasn’t until I was an adult myself, and saw friends fling tortillas across a room, that I realized that only Mexicans knew how to properly handle a hot tortilla. He would then place the tortilla in one hand, and use the fingertips of his other hand to gently roll it into the most perfect taquito-like shape. Somehow, my Tio’s warm and rolled up tortillas tasted better than any other tortilla on the planet. Sometimes, when I stop to remember them, they still do.
It’s been more than three decades since my uncle first started handing me those unrivaled rolled up tortillas, and my mom started bragging to me about how our people are responsible for the best food and the most spectacular ingredients in the world. It’s funny how our culture becomes so ingrained in our lives, and in our hearts. Even if I wanted to escape and break free of all the traditions and customs, I’m not sure I could. I have my own girl now, and I sometimes find myself bragging a little bit when I share a piece of my chocolate bar with her. And when she asks politely, I even find myself using my now properly callused grownup hands to perfectly roll up a warm tortilla for her, just like my Tio did all those many years ago.
Homemade Corn Tortillas
- Mix all ingredients together and knead for roughly two minutes. If the dough feels too dry (you don’t want cracks), add a little more water, tablespoon by tablespoon. Let the dough sit at room temperature for an hour.
- Divide your dough into 16 equal parts, and roll into uniform balls. Line a tortilla press with 2 sheets of thick plastic, and press your dough balls into 5-6in. rounds.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet on medium heat, and cook each tortilla for roughly 50 seconds on each side. Cover tortillas with a cloth napkin to keep them soft and warm.
The Easiest (and best) Guacamole
The best way to make guacamole is with a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle), but do not fret if you don’t own one. Simply put all of your ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and mash with a potato masher until you’ve reached your desired consistency. Personally, I prefer a chunkier Guacamole, but super smooth is also customary. Enjoy!
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