It was hot! I mean sweat-dripping-down-the-small-of-your-back hot!!! Smoke was stinging my eyes, and I immediately realized I had chosen exactly the wrong place to stand. The teary eyes in the smiling face that greeted me said that it was just as bad where she was standing.
I had followed my nose through the gates and past the dark and empty restaurant seating area to the fiery kitchen in the rear. Although the stairs were steeper than I’d expected, and the only handrail going down the left-hand side of the steps didn’t feel sturdy enough to support a mosquito, I floated effortlessly into the sweltering prep area below.
We’ve been buying delectable tacos, enchiladas, and tamales from this little family-run eatery regularly since landing in our tiny beach town on the Pacific coast of Mexico a few months ago. And, by regularly, I mean every Saturday night. It’s the only day of the week they’re open for diners.
But that doesn’t mean that’s the only time the cooking fires blaze. A trio of hard-working sisters are up at the crack of dawn every Monday through Friday to provide freshly-prepared meals for the students and staff of the neighborhood elementary school, a few blocks away. Meanwhile, mom stays behind to tend the flames of the wood-burning stove, and to press and cook the day’s tortillas, all by hand — of course!
It was at mom’s invitation that I had come, and I was positively overjoyed to accept. All I’d had to do was to express my curiosity at the creation of all those beautifully golden rounds of corn which enveloped my tacos, and she was eagerly proposing that I join her in learning the ins and outs of their preparation.
Her work begins around 7 in the morning with 40 kilograms of a ground corn dough, called masa, even chunks of which she pinches off entirely by feel. After rolling it into a little ball, she smashes it down onto the small square of plastic on her tortilla press, leaving the imprint of several fingers in the mound. Covering the top with another layer of plastic, she quickly drops the lid and depresses the handle, flattening the mass into a perfectly-formed disk. My worries that the misshaped blob would result in anything less were obviously completely unfounded.
Just as swiftly, she raises the handle, removes the upper sheet of protective plastic, and peels the tortilla off of the press. Her movements are so practiced, her fingers so nimble, my camera only catches a blur the first few times. My tongue trips over the Spanish in my apologetic request for her to slow down. Finally capturing what I hope is a clearer still of her manual ballet with the prensa, we shift our attention to the cook top.
A sturdy sheet of metal arches its back from one side of the charred brick fireplace to the other, bending up toward the sky as if trying to move away from the flames hungrily licking up from underneath. It’s been dusted with a fine coating of lime, which she explains is to prevent the tortillas from sticking.
With a seemingly careless flick of her narrow wrist, the sticky circle is suddenly sizzling away on the scorching stove. I stare, transfixed, as the heat creates steam inside the dough, causing the top to rise up and separate from the other side, which remains attached to the white surface. Apparently unaware of the blistering heat, her deft fingers poke and prod the bubbling flatbread, relying on their experience to indicate the desired done-ness.
When they’ve sufficiently cooked through on one side, she slides the tortilla to the edge of the stove nearest her, lining the pieces up for a surprising step in their preparation. Scooping up a rough cylinder of basalt , she gently transfers the piping-hot round onto the pockmarked slab of the metate, a flat grind stone, to remove the top layer of uncooked dough. In two swift swipes, half of the tortilla abruptly appears in a balled up pile on the table. “For the pig,” she reassures me, answering my unasked question as to the eventual fate of 50% of her earlier work.
“Or maybe I’ll throw it in some soup. It’s good! Would you like to taste?” I need no further encouragement. A split second after the question has left her lips, the discarded shreds of half-cooked mush are on mine. After all, this is the best privilege of meal preparation, is it not?! A secret sampling of all the ingredients. A precious preview of the eventual delights to come.
Its warmth feels appetizing in my mouth, although the slightly gummy consistency reminds me that this part hasn’t finished cooking yet. However, the gently crisped edges hint at the toasty texture of this home-grown grain that will eventually be realized with just another minute or two back over the fire.
And back it goes. Expert hands toss the successfully-skinned sheet of corn onto the stove top once more. Maneuvering the dozens of disks about in complex patterns for reasons only her practiced proficiency understands, these soon-to-be tostadas earn their crunchy, crispy finish as the heat continues to dry the meal. Browned and beautiful, they are flung like frisbees off to a far corner of the table to cool, while the process is repeated again and again.
And again, and again, and again. I get a quick primer in scraping and flipping, and then jump right in to help. But I am far too slow and inexperienced to pinch the right amount of masa from the gigantic heap, which hunkers like a large dog in the middle of the table. I don’t begrudge her this task. She was working for ages before my arrival, and will continue for many more after I take my leave.
We chat comfortably for more than two hours. As our hands fly, I pepper her with questions about how, and why she does this work the way she does. More often than not, the answers aren’t entirely clear. “It’s just the way my mom taught me,” she repeats several times.
She wonders why I would want to join her in such bruising work, but I reassure her that I no longer feel the initial burns my fingertips sustained at the outset. She inquires as to whether I wouldn’t prefer she simply make a few for me to take home, and the kindness in her eyes tells me she’s attempting to spare me the aches she feels in her arms rather than trying to chase me away. A peek at the Mastiff-sized mound of masa between us, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to indicate that this work will be nearing its end any time soon.
I search in vain for the words to describe how powerful a connection I feel to the earth in this place as we work the grains it offers us. I fumble around an explanation of the intimacy involved in handling the food that will nurture and sustain others. My vocabulary is growing with each passing minute, the bulk of which fly by in a haze as foggy as the smoke swirling around our heads. But there is just no way that any of my Spanish instructors or school curricula could have anticipated the need to prepare me for this conversation!
I cook because I love good food and I enjoy creating it. However, it is so much more profound than having fun or a full stomach. We form a deeper bond in this sweltering afternoon of cooking together than we would have with hours of idle small talk in the restaurant or chatting in the street. I learned more about Mexican cuisine hanging out over her hot stove than I did from the last half a dozen cookbooks I consumed on the subject, combined.
But more importantly, cook fires have always been at the center of close-knit communities. Those tending them fan the flames of family communication, igniting conversations which educate and encourage, challenge and inspire. By making and breaking bread together, I hope for nothing less than to be the catalyst for a harmony and an accord which transcends linguistic, cultural, and continental divides. I dream of spreading the understanding that we all desire the same nourishment of body and soul, even if we prefer a different variety flavors.
I am so grateful for her generosity of time and spirit that I embrace her before I depart. The rib-crushing bear hug she gives me in return informs me that we are off to a good start! I head for home, excited to sample the fruits of our labor. She heads in the opposite direction, off to collect more firewood to continue her calling.