Imagine you are just waking up from a deep sleep. Just before you open your eyes, your olfactory sense is beckoned by the sweet and caressing smell of freshly kneaded dough, and your ears are tickled by the simmering and crackling sounds of the dough touching the hot, sweaty skillet. Part of you thinks it is a dream because you haven’t even opened your eyes yet. The loud rhythmic and percussive sound of the roller makes your eyes finally open. Then, as if somnambulated, you go to the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and you see a high-stack of flour tortillas and another inflating on the skillet like a balloon and then deflating and releasing its delicious aroma. Once it comes off the skillet, you put it on the palm of your hand and feel its soft, sultry texture and spread a spoonful of warm refried beans and crumble some fresh moist cheese on it. You wrap it up, take one last whiff, and take a bite. You then allow all of those ingredients to float around in your mouth, piquing every surface of it, like a fine wine.
With each bite, you savor not only the delicious ingredients, but the memories of when you were a child running and playing in a small poor town where time didn’t matter and worries didn’t exist. You then remember your grandma calling you in for lunch and eating the tortillas she made; the same ones that she fed to your mother when she was a child. Instinctively, you know that there is no better food anywhere in the world than these tortillas and, innately, that they were made by the most caring hands and loving heart.
Growing up, my mother would send my siblings and me to Tijuana, Mexico to stay with my grandparents over the summer. Before the rooster would give its first crow, my grandparents would get up and get the materials ready to prepare a large batch of tortillas for the whole family. Like an experienced sculptor, my grandma would bury her hands elbow-deep into a bowl full of dry white flour and scalding hot water and began kneading the mixture into soft, malleable dough. As beads of sweat ran down her forehead, she would add water, salt, and pork lard on to the mix without the aid of any measuring spoons or cups, with surgical precision. My grandma was a master chef. She knew the recipe, she knew the ingredients, and she knew the size of her hands and fingers; the only measuring tools she needed. Finally, she would add the ingredient only she possessed; one that has no measurement, love.
The recipe was ingrained in her mind and she performed it with ease, like a virtuosic pianist performing a Beethoven sonata. As she would cook, she would say “One has to cook everything with love or else one shouldn’t cook at all.” The prior was manifested everyday of her adult life. She would make a fresh batch of flour tortillas every other day, each one tasting as delicious as the last. I can safely say that in her lifetime, she cooked over one million tortillas; each one of them made with love.
Food is often synonymous with family and tradition and in my family; this has always been the case. My grandma always promoted the feeling of family unity through food. Although she is no longer with us, she left behind a rich tradition of recipes and anecdotes. Every one of her children and grandchildren that ate her tortillas will tell you a different story about her and give you a different description of they how tasted to them. However, one thing we can all agree on and come to a clear consensus is that when my grandma’s tortillas are made they create a vinculum that brings us all together not only as a family, but as witnesses of something special, of something that only each of us can feel in our own skin, of a moment that my grandma shared with each of us and no one else. When we eat them, we remember her. We remember ourselves with her and that makes us love her and the traditions she left behind even more.
Cooking, along with music, painting, writing, and oral tradition, is an art form that preserves ideas and traditions that can be recreated and reinterpreted according to its time and surroundings. The only difference is that cooking arouses all of the human senses, including the intangible human soul. It connects the world of the living to the hereafter. It recreates moments that are so specific that they cannot be described at all. To my family, tortillas are synonymous with tradition and unity. Everyone in my family, from the oldest uncle to the youngest niece, knows what flour tortillas mean to the family, even if they were never able to meet my grandma. When they are made, the members of the family wait in anticipation to eat them and reminisce about my grandma’s original recipe. Then, they thank the person who made them, but the true honor and biggest compliment they can bestow upon the person interpreting the recipe is when they are told that they taste just like the tortillas my grandma used to make.