Adulting Measured in Spanish Tortilla
Let’s start by saying that if you’ve never had a proper Spanish Tortilla, a heavenly marriage of potatoes and eggs (and onions*), you really should make it a top priority in your life as of right now. If you have tried it before, it’s likely been too long, so let’s all plan on some tortilla soon.
Growing up in Spain, you take it for granted and it’s 100% nothing special. It’s everywhere, too — in every potluck or picnic, in wedges as a tapa, in a bocadillo with a café con leche for a true Madrid experience. Everyone’s mom can whip one up incredibly quickly. While it’s a very simple dish with just three humble ingredients, there are endless subtleties to it, and everyone has fiercely strong opinions about what a good tortilla should be like. Bring up the topic of onions or no onions in a tortilla, and you just sparked an impassioned hour-long debate.
My mom makes an excellent tortilla — the very best out there, in my very objective opinion. She’ll cook five or six of them in a flash for a big gathering while doing other things. The trouble with my mom’s cooking though is, she never passed even the bare fundamentals on to me. She was the type of homemaker mom who would do absolutely everything for everyone and shoo us away from the kitchen — I should worry about school, not cooking. Which is how we got to my disastrous first foray into tortilla-making.
At the ripe age of 20, I was living away from home for the first time while at a study abroad at Hunter College in Manhattan. It was a year-long, much-needed crash course in independence. I did my first load of laundry, baffled at all the different compartments the washing machine offered to pour the detergent into. As far as food, let’s just say I didn’t eat very well that year.
In the Spring, a cute guy I had met recently invited me over to a barbecue at his place in Brooklyn. I pondered over what to bring. I couldn’t legally buy a six-pack of beer, which seemed like the customary American thing to do. So I decided to make something. A Spanish tortilla, of course! It would be a nice ice-breaker at a party where I only knew one person. I didn’t know the first thing about how to even fry an egg, so I called my mom to ask directions. Of course, having cooked thousands of these things at that point, her instructions couldn’t have been vaguer. Nothing was measured, cooking time was however long it took for it to cook right, the flipping technique described as “you just flip it”. I figured that all sounded straightforward enough, thanked her for her help, and set off for the shared kitchen at my dorm.
Cooking that impossibly huge tortilla was such a stressful experience. Insecure as I was about just about everything back then, I second-guessed every single step, from the number of potatoes or how thick I was cutting them to whether they had cooked through or not. And then came the flipping. As I recall, there was screaming, acrobatics, and finally, relief. The result was a sort of black-and-white tortilla, overcooked on one side and more normal-looking on the other. I thought about just throwing it away and picking something up on the way to the party. Eventually, though, I took a big breath, plated the thing healthier-side-up and set off to Brooklyn.
I didn’t find out that day that the cute boy had a lifelong repulsion of eggs, and I couldn’t begin to fathom that he would pass on said repulsion to our two children. But despite all my nervousness about the tortilla’s looks and how it would taste, people at the party seemed to like it, and we were all so busy having fun that I forgot about it entirely pretty quickly. It was a lesson to not overthink everything so much, which was a lesson I was taking my sweet time to learn.
The experience left me pretty scarred, and it would be years before I attempted to make another tortilla. It didn’t help that I lived with someone who couldn’t stand eggs in any shape or form. But eventually, I started making a few here and there, mostly for get-togethers with friends and for the reoccurring ‘cultural days’ at the kids’ schools. I started calling my mom again for advice, but at that point, I had learned a few lessons — the biggest one being I was no longer afraid of failure.
I was a young new mom running my own business, learning how to do both things on the fly. I had gained the confidence that comes with dealing with a few baby blow ups while out on the town. Messes happen and you learn to deal with them. So when I called my mom for tortilla-making assistance, I asked specific questions to get the egg-to-potato ratio right. I got her to describe actual measures for how thick the potato slices should be, how much olive oil to use, how to freakin’ flip the thing. The tortillas gradually got better. I didn’t overthink them. If they didn’t turn out right, I picked up an extra six-pack of beer on the way and laughed every time I was asked for ID.
These days, 16 years after that first infamous tortilla, I still make them pretty rarely. I live with three Aries boys who all despise eggs. But when I do make them, I have finally found my groove. That happy calm that comes with finally having your shit slightly together, and having made peace with the fact that you’ll never have it fully together and that’s okay. I don’t always call my mom before I make one, and when I do, it’s mainly just for fun. Potatoes get peeled and sliced while I’m also doing other things. I no longer dread flipping — in fact I’ve gotten so good at it that I pat my back a little every time I flawlessly slide it back into the pan. The trick? Use a small pan. My tortillas nowadays are never bigger than a large pancake.
So at 36, I am finding a steadier footing. I try not to stress over little things like a black-and-white tortilla. Failure is ok. Most skills take a while to learn. When you allow yourself to relax and give yourself the time you need, the tortilla just tastes better.
Do you have a dish you have ‘grown up’ with? I would love to hear all about it.
Published by Eat Your Words — The Best in New Food Writing. Passionate about food, restaurants, cooking and travel.