I did not use a knife at the table until I was about 18 years old and began eating out with friends. Chicago,
where I was born and raised, is renowned for its diverse and delectable dining opportunities. But at home, we ate with a fork or spoon (for soup) and with a tortilla (see recipes at end). The tortilla served as bread but also as a utensil. It’s an old Mexican custom that is still practiced by people of humble origin. You tear off a couple of pieces, as you would with pita bread when eating hummus. With one piece in hand you push a little food onto the piece held in the other and, scooping it up, eat the whole bite. The palate becomes so used to tasting tortilla along with other food that it becomes virtually impossible to enjoy a meal without it.
My parents met in Chicago. My paternal great-grandmother introduced my mother, a young divorcée with two small children, to her grandson, whom she had raised. A year later they were married, and a year after, I was born.
We lived with my grandmother, who rose every day to the task of making flour tortillas. Grandmother, as we
called her, was from the beautiful state of Guanajuato, where people ate corn tortillas. After moving to El Norte, however, she developed a taste for the kind made with white flour. My mother, American-born and raised in Mexico City, preferred the corn tortilla; my father, used to Grandmother’s homemade flour tortillas, insisted on those.
Corn tortillas are very good and what I eat at home today, if only because they are healthier. But the choice takes willpower. There is hardly an aroma more enticing in the morning than the smell of coffee brewing and flour tortillas baking on a grill. They are good reheated, but freshly made and rolled up with melted butter—they’re to die for.
My earliest memories are associated with Grandmother making tortillas at her red Formica table. When I was a child, my assistance took the form of play. “Here, mijita,” she’d say, pulling off a chunk of dough with craggy hands, “you’re going to help me.” With my own ball of dough and a toy rolling pin, I tried to mimic my grandmother’s motions, turning out little tortillas, which also went on the hot grill.
Grandmother passed on when I was not quite 10. My mother had a job outside the home, so on Saturdays, her day off, she prepared the several dozen tortillas that were to last the family through the week. Tradition held that the role of Mamá’s helper should go to the firstborn daughter, but instead it fell to me. My big sister (from my mother’s first marriage) was permitted to spend her Saturdays out with friends, and soon she held down part-
time jobs. (Years later, I came to understand that what seemed like preferential treatment for my older sister stemmed from my mother’s desire to help her succeed in the outside world. We both grew up to have careers, but Mamá always struggled with the legitimacy of my writer’s life, which didn’t require me to work in an office.) So I became the daughter who learned to clean, iron and, yes, make tortillas. Mamá had no time for play and was short on patience. Dark, shapely, with gorgeous black hair tied back in a ponytail, she taught me to make tortillas by demonstration. Except for an occasional command—“Do it right,” was her favorite—she was stone silent beside me. Tortilla making was merely a task to be accomplished before we moved on to the next chore.
Years later, when my mother’s health declined, I moved back to Chicago with my son to care for her. For the next two years, we lived in an apartment adjacent to my mother’s. Mamá did not want anyone to come in and clean, so I took charge of domestic chores and house repairs. After all, as she saw it, I didn’t seem to have a real job to go to every day, so the arrangement seemed appropriate. She still had a close relationship with her eldest daughter, who came to visit regularly and shared with me the responsibility of taking her to doctors’ appointments.