The Gift of the Tortilla

I’ve always had a thing for dough. Not an eating disorder thing, just a love for the stuff, traced back to the days I stood at my dad’s elbow as he kneaded bread dough. Simple flour-and-water has always fed me in a basic way that meat, potatoes, and even chocolate don’t. Pies especially – those crusts! – are my favorite dessert. And, as a writer, taking a break, I would often whip up a batch of biscuits, staring at the toaster-oven door providing a glimpse of the wording that had so elude me at the keyboard. And sometimes, out-and-out inspiration.

When the metabolism bullet train hit the brakes – around age 40, when I could no longer eat all the carbs I wanted to and when my mother was diagnosed with cancer – I stopped making myself biscuits. I made rich risottos and creamy smoothies for my mother, and I nibbled on almonds and encouraged her to “finish the whole thing, Mommie.” I took time off from writing.

When the time came to go back to my novel, I couldn’t do it alone. I wanted my favorite chewy-yeasty snacks, those that often helped me find the wording for a recalcitrant sentence. But buttermilk biscuits were forbidden, and almonds just didn’t do the trick. Then I discovered tortillas.

Not just any tortillas.

I stopped one day at a produce stand in Dixon, California, on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley, and found Micaela’s handmade flour tortillas. Cornmeal tortillas, I suppose, have more fiber, but Micaela, bless her, passed on a family tradition of making them from flour. White or whole-wheat, with a bit of canola oil and salt, and I buy a bag of each, often ripping into one on the drive home to nibble at a scrumptious corner of chewy flour-and-water bliss. Ever press homemade bread between your fingers? Micaela’s tortillas are like that, and often still warm. I loved them so much, I had to learn more, and one day I drove to Woodland to meet Micaela’s son, who oversees the making of his mother’s recipes into tortillas wrapped in plastic and delivered to markets in the Sacramento area. (Mail-order, I learned the hard way, doesn’t work so well; these tortillas are so fresh they’ll sprout mold if not frozen—or eaten—right after buying.)

When the craving hits – in the middle of a tricky paragraph, say, or when a character just won’t budge – I heat a tortilla over a low, gas flame and eat it plain. Sure, Micaela’s tortillas work divinely as wrappings for grilled meat (delicious with a yogurt-and-cucumber sauce) or as a base for smashed avocado, but I prefer them plain. That’s how I first tasted tortillas, served hot in a red plastic basket covered with a napkin, at El Burro restaurant in my hometown, where beans (refried), rice (yellow), and melted cheese (white) ran into one another and covered the plate (brown, oval, too hot to touch). My father always parked the car in the lot behind El Burro, so that we’d enter through the kitchen and its aromatic, welcoming steam.

Chewing my first Micaela’s tortilla, I once again saw El Burro’s open back door, its brightly lit rectangle against the night, and then I saw – in front of me, already happening, the way characters and plot come when the writing’s going well, but I wasn’t even writing, I was chewing, ecstatically – a scene for my second novel.

I already knew that my main character, Mollie, 14, lives in a farm town in central California in the 1970s, where a woman named Rosa runs a Mexican restaurant that serves as headquarters for the local United Farm Workers as well as a haven for Mollie when she clashes with her mom. As I chewed, I learned something else – just like that, from the flavor and the memory of a old-style Mexican restaurant, its kitchen brightly lighted and warm on a dark cold night. The scene didn’t unroll as much as appear, like a vision. On a winter night when the fog is thick and the back door open, Rosa’s son will be injured in a car accident. Mollie will pull up to the back of the restaurant in time to hear a sound of wailing coming from the open back door, in time to see Rosa drop the spoon she has been using to stir the menudo and fall to her knees, in time to watch Rosa’s husband crouch beside his wife, pressing her dark head into his chest.

The set-up, the unraveling, the narrative knitting-together, are ahead of me. Mollie and her mom, Rosa and her restaurant, events underlining the bonds of love, the conflicts of mother and daughter and of UFW and rancher, are ahead of me. In the meantime, I’ll keep eating tortillas, not because each bite yields a new scene (no, my Gift of the Tortilla has already been given, and I am grateful), but because they taste so right. Flour and water feed me only so far, after all. A tortilla, no matter how delectable, can’t substitute for drafting and revision, the hard work of writing, anymore than it can for a mother’s company. But combined just right and bound with a little oil, warmed over a low flame, rolled and eaten standing in the kitchen while the dishes dry and the sunlight breaks through the fog, they feed me.