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