The Tortillaria Trio
(Originally published on thelatinkitchen.com, copyright September 2012)
My mother is bouncing up and down like a child. The women behind the counter are in hysterics, doubled over, laughing so hard they’re crying; tears run down their cheeks and land on their aprons. I am turning a shade of red reserved for lobsters fresh out of the boiling pot, my embarrassment knows no limits. I am barely 15. My mother just dragged me across a busy street to queue up for tortillas – warm tortillas about the diameter of a closed fist – made by a trio of fleshy, masa-dusted señoras – Mexico’s version of Flora, Fauna and Meriweather.
We are in Cuernavaca, Mexico; the year is 1999. We are here to learn Spanish and are staying with a local family. This is my first time out of the country, and I am less than enthusiastic about being away from my friends and summertime activities and now my mom is going loca. This is not the same woman who shuffled me back and forth to school, swimming, and play practice. This gleeful woman who is acting like a child is doing so because she knows what treasures await us behind the counter of the tortilleria.
As we approach the old wooden counter, the smell of toasted corn envelops me like a blanket, and my mouth begins to water. The stall is small, no more than four feet wide, and can barely accommodate the stove and comal, let alone the tortillaria trio.
Mom orders six tortillas even though we just ate a hearty breakfast. Our tortillas, hot off the comal, are wrapped in green wax paper. Mom cradles the packet in her hands as a child would a lighting bug, and with her eyes closed, brings the packet to her nose for a good waft. She hands me three and points to the three bowls of salsa on the counter. Tangy tomatillo, pungent chile de arbol and pepita, salsas await us. We spoon a little of each onto our tortillas, add a dash of salt and take our snack across the street where we sit around the fountain.
The tortillas are warm, sumptuous, and feather light. The salsas enhanced the flavor of the maiz in the masa, the hint of lime a perfect compliment to the toasted corn. Mom was smiling from her eyes down to her neck, and salsa dripped down her chin. Not content with three, we go back to the stall for more each. Not just that day, but every day thereafter.
My mother gave me a gift that day which I will never forget. Something I will now dream about and crave. Something from her childhood and our culture. As we are licking the wax paper for any last scrap, I look over and see the tortillaria trio, still giggling behind the comal.