Family Recipe

People who have recipes passed down from generations have always fascinated me.

“I have my grandma’s tomato pie recipe.”

“This strawberry cake is from my great-great grandmother.”

“I baked this bread with my great aunt and she got the recipe from her aunt’s grandma’s cousin’s sister-in-law…”

I don’t have recipes like those.

Nana in the center, her niece, Ruth, on the left, and my great-grandmother, Welita, on the right.

Nana’s tortillas were measured with her hands: several scoops of flour, shortening-tantito así –just this much, a few sprinkles of salt and pinches of baking powder. Heating water on the stove, she’d dunk a finger to test the temperature, who needs a cooking thermometer for accuracy? It’s either too hot or too cold. Agua tibia, she’d instruct, even though it looked much hotter than warm, judging from the steam rising and the bubbles just starting to form along the inside of the pot. Pouring a stream of hot water into a small well in the mound of flour, her other hand worked it quickly into a dough. A little more, the dough started coming together. The final stream, just a tad, and the dough was smooth and ready.

She pulled apart small portions of dough and rolled them into balls, covered the green Tupperware mixing bowl with a dishcloth and continued with the rest of the meal. Carne guisada. Rice. Frijoles. No recipes for those, either. She just cooked and her tastebuds guided her.

There was no Martha Stewart or Pampered Chef tortilla rolling guide for her to roll out the balls of dough. She rolled them out, perfectly, with a smooth and well worn rolling pin Papá made from some repurposed tool. Probably the handle of a broken garden hoe. Each tortilla hung over the edge of the bowl awaiting its fate on the comal.

This was the best part. As she stacked warm tortillas and wrapped them in another dishcloth, we’d snag one and smear it with butter. Folding it in half or rolling it up, we’d take a careful bite, they’re hot! These were our appetizers. No fancy snack trays or crudités.

My mom tried to translate hand measured scoops and portions into measuring cups and spoons for us to use. Since she learned from Nana at a young age, she doesn’t use conventional measuring tools either. I’ve tried to make them as well with the guidance of other people’s recipes or the assistance of “just add water” mixes. They aren’t the same. We buy them from the grocery store bakery.

Some day I’ll stop long enough to give my patience a rest and pick up the art of homemade tortilla making. I just have to pull up my sleeves, heat up some water, and scoop out handfuls of flour into a bowl.

December 7, 2021

13 thoughts on “Family Recipe

  1. Dear Alice…

    I almost felt guilty for liking this as much as I did… Almost! And then I remembered why I love (what I consider to be) food writing so much – because it draws you in, beckoning even, like a fragrance that invites you into a kitchen saturated with childhood memories.

    You have woven this tale with the mastery of a celebrated chef. How beautiful are the lyrical gems here and the homage paid to the art of measurement-less cooking. Indeed, your grandmother measured with her heart; her soul; her unparalleled insight. Your account summoned my most fond remembrances of my own grandmother, a non-measuring connoisseur of impeccable, southern delectables.

    I found myself peering into your lovely cocina, enamored with sights, sounds, tastes and textures you so carefully depicted. I must admit, my reading (and re-reading) were also laden with great disappointment – because I have nothing to sample after visualizing such incomparable fare! #sigh

    I love how you juxtapose the modernities of today’s contemporary cuisine with the seemingly ignoble, but clearly majestic tools of sacred sentiment: “Pampered Chef Tortilla Rolling Guide vs. Garden Hoe Rolling Pin (crafted with love)” And as you compared her best to the crudites and fancy trays of others, I am confident that her renditions surpassed them in every category.

    I’ve conducted my fair number of trainings (and offered many a soapbox opinions) on the eloquence of the food-laden narrative as a conduit of humanity as its core. It lends itself to peeling back the layers of lives that are rich in stories, legends, unsung heroes, culture, compassion (at times, even cruelty) and so much more; but, more than that, written at its finest, it connects us in the most transcendent of ways – transporting us in time and space to a place that allows us to absorb and understand the life experiences of one another.

    Upon occasion, we are introduced to the otherwise unknown – an education of sorts. In other instances, we breathe in a familiarity that resonates with our own heartfelt memories. Your post tonight afforded me the unanticipated opportunity of experiencing both.

    Muchas Gracias.

    Your work is so replete with talent that I do really hope that you are working on – or at least considering – a larger literary work in this illustrious genre which you’ve selected tonight. It would be such a pleasure to dine on this as a literary delight.

    Bon appetit my friend. Of the writings I’ve read that you’ve shared before, I am sure that this is my favorite.

    May you be richly and wonderfully blessed.

    ~Carla Michelle

    #finediningindeed #marvelous

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carla Michelle-Wow, thank you, thank you, thank you for such kind, affirming words. I’ve noticed I gravitate toward food writing unintentionally. And now you have planted a seed of an idea for me to explore.

      I originally thought this piece would be a humorous take on where our recipes came from: the local newspaper, my mom’s Family Circle magazines, a Girl Scout Mother’s Day recipe compilation, the backsides of food packages like a can of Libby’s pumpkin, and of course, the infamous spiral notebook (which my sister still has, splattered with splashes of vanilla).

      This is what happened instead and I’m glad I listened to that inner voice-perhaps Nana’s-and went with the tortilla “recipe” instead. While I wrote the piece, I was there with her, as a kid, spending time with my grandma eating a warm tortillas.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Alice,

        It is a great pleasure. I think food writing has followed me from my childhood because I had so many prolific experiences centered on fare growing up with extended family.

        That you gravitate to it naturally I think sings to your indisputable talent and the impact of food-related experiences on shaping who you are.

        I did find humor in it (which I think is organically infused into a wide range of your writing, by the way – smile); but, I love the path that you pursued with this piece. Even in your response, I feel that the deftness of your descriptions stirs my senses with a welcome and riveting intrigue.

        I love the imagery of the beloved spiral notebook. I can see – and smell – the splashes of vanilla, cherishing the uniqueness of their memorable stains (and I’m forever enamored with the alliterations – splattered splashes – #yum)!

        My favorite part of this response – is, “While I wrote the piece, I was there with her, as a kid, spending time with my grandma eating a warm tortilla.”

        Honestly? I am imagining it as the last sentence of a quintessential novel.

        Just…beautiful.

        Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

        What an honor to travel along with you on this journey.

        ~Carla Michelle

        Like

    1. I’m getting better at experimenting, but it’s those old recipes I wish I would’ve learned about from the source. The good thing is I figured out how to cook and season Mexican rice-at least the way my mom makes it.

      Like

  2. This reminds me so much of my grandmother. She never used a recipe. Her measuring cup was a coffee cup. Her seasonings were til it tasted right. Her stove was a cast iron coal stove that not only was used for cooking but was the source of heat for the house as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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