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Homemade tortillas mean love

Photograph by ThinkStock

"You will never get a man to marry you if you don't learn how to make tortillas."

I read this quote on the internet several years ago, emblazoned on a photo of a little old woman holding a large flour tortilla in her hands. It reminded me of my nana, and it brought a huge smile to my face. I can still see her, all soft, round flesh and gray hair, standing in the bright kitchen with her apron dusted in flour, hand on her hip.

"Oye Miss America, when are you going to get in this kitchen and learn how to make tortillas? Tu esposo is going to want to eat homemade tortillas, you know!" Although her tone was playful as she called out to me, I knew her well enough to understand she was also being dead serious.

I was a young girl at the time, around 12 or 13, and I was horrified at the thought. My world revolved around softball and boy bands—husbands and tortillas were somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. Didn't my nana understand that I wasn't planning on catering to a man, and that I had absolutely no intention of standing over a hot comal, tirelessly rolling out dough?

Fast forward 30 years and now I'm a wife and mother to six kids, ages 8 to 16. I now understand the power of love and service when it comes to family—everything I saw my nana live out on a daily basis.

I think back on my nana's example and our excited anticipation as children when we knew what she was making for us in the kitchen. It usually happened on cool, overcast days. Armed with her apron and hot comal, nana would start tossing ingredients into a large bowl—flour, a pinch of baking powder, a scoop of salt, whatever oil she had on hand and some warm water, never once measuring ingredients or consulting a recipe. She would then knead the masa until she had a collection of round, pliable patties.

"It's all in the manos," she'd say, and stretch out her hands.

She would then roll each one of her masa patties into perfect circles with her worn, familiar rodillo. She always let us sample the first few, as if to whet our appetites. Of course, we would greedily slather the soft, warm tortilla with butter, and then brush the remnants of flour off of our hands in search of more. But by that time, she'd place the rest of the tortillas in a towering stack, covered by a brightly-colored towel and guard them with her life. If she didn't, we would surely gobble them all up.

How the simple alchemy of flour, salt, oil, baking powder and water can make something so delicious and convey so much love and adoration, I'll never know.

Over the years, I've learned how to make tortillas on my own. My nana is no longer with us, so at first, I had to make lots of phone calls to my mother, for reassurance. Now I'm confident enough to toss the ingredients together, just like my nana did. Most of the time, my tortillas aren't perfectly round, but they are delicious. Besides, nobody cares they're not perfectly shaped when they're eating them alongside a steaming bowl of frijoles de la olla.

My two young daughters will know the art of tortilla-making and they will understand its magic. When they realize mamá is about to make homemade tortillas, they crowd around the kitchen counter and don't hesitate to get their hands in the masa and start kneading. They each have a small rolling pin and spreading out the masa is one of their favorite things to do. I'm happy they're eager to learn and I'm happy for the help, too.

The importance of standing alongside mother and abuelita in the kitchen to learn the art of homemade tortillas cannot be denied by this self-proclaimed chicana. Many years passed before I truly grasped this cultural nugget of wisdom. Tortillas aren't just a source of sustenance, they bring joy to a family.

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