COMFORT FOODS // Flour and Oil — Jacey de la Torre

Flour and Oil

I was fifteen when my brother Jack taught me how to make tortillas in our family’s kitchen. Pop always declares, grinning, how tortillas were a recipe passed down through de la Torre generations, starting with somebody’s great-great-grandmother. But Jack learned how to make tortillas in sophomore year of college, alongside the curry and spaghetti that he experimented with when he was first living on his own. Pop usually makes some joke.

“My grandmother brought this over from Mexico.”

“My aunt Marie learned this recipe from her mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from …” 

Those are some peoples’ stories, some peoples’ histories, but they aren’t ours. I sometimes think my father wishes they were, but jokes about our family’s lack of continuity as a way of filling that hole instead. Something behind which to hide his insecurity about the disconnect from his heritage. The recipe was passed down though, from Jack to us, just not in the sweeping legendary way Pop says it was.

Pop used to bring home tamales and pan dulce1 from La Borinqueña, a treasured Oaxacan restaurant and bakery in Oakland. My twin sister Jilly and I were about twelve or thirteen when it closed down. That was our family’s first special place where we would buy our special Mexican food. Then there was the Central Foods grocery down the street, with its reliable Abuelita2 and slightly stale (but still worthwhile) conchas.3 We didn’t grow up making a lot of Latino food at home. But something happened, some kind of absence filled itself as if nourished at last, when I learned how to make flour tortillas from scratch, and we began dedicating nights to cooking huge Mexican meals as a family.

I started making tortillas every weekend to practice rolling and dry-frying them better and better each time. Eventually Pop started taking us to Las Montañas, a súpermercado in the adjacent neighborhood of San Pablo. By junior year of high school, this was an extension of home’s warmth for us. We’d cruise through on Sunday evenings to pick up our essentials for a full night of cooking: potatoes, house-made chorizo, cilantro and onions, fresh crema and queso Oaxaca, and house-made totopos, salsa and pico. And always a packed paper bag of mantecadas4 for the next morning. We’d go home. Pop and sis are responsible for shredding the cheese, dicing the onions and potatoes to fry with the bright red grease left behind by the pork, which we cook first.

I stay in the corner of our kitchen, furiously rolling out the soft balls of dough into flattened circles (if I’m lucky; mostly they come out as lopsided ovals or sometimes, oddly, completely square). They cook on a broad dry pan. The white flour crusts over my hands, its downy softness billowing from the rolling pin to settle all over my clothes and face as I press my tortilla out. Then another, then another. I’m anticipating their chewy warmth. It’s always been my personal rule to never eat until they’ve all been cooked. Then I roll one in garlic butter, or pile it high with the colorful meat and cheese and cream, and remember to chew slowly.

The chorizo grease runs red rivulets over the creases of my palms that struggle to cup the heavy meal.

The food’s earthy soft smell of home.

One night, I interview Pop about abuelo y abuela, about the rivers of grease and love that ran through the food of his childhood as well as mine. This time he doesn’t joke about some stereotyped connection to las raíces5, or the recipes his great-grandmother supposedly taught him. “She thought the best thing for us,” he says about his mother, “was to fit in as quickly as possible. And – what’s the word? – assimilate. Assimilate as fast as possible. Living the American dream, right? Hamburgers. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

“Is that what she wanted?” I ask.

“My mother wanted us to be white,” he says. “So, no Spanish. She wouldn’t have made tacos, but that’s all she knew how to make. She was not a good cook.” He shakes his head and laughs.

I swallow the swells of sadness that his answers are stirring in me. “Really, a bad cook? I didn’t know that. What about the chile rellenos you always talk about?”

“No, no, that wasn’t Mom. That was Aunt Marie.”

“Oh.”

I want to say that the first terms I learned in Spanish were for food, because we always had panecillos in the house, we ate tamales and pupusas, they were part of our everyday life and part of our home and bodies. Food is the way that things get pressed down in our family. Meals become an integral part of the way we breathe history into our bones. The things we make with our hands, the smells and tastes we ache for when we think of home. But I’m honestly not sure what my first Spanish words were, because I don’t really remember. 

The next morning, Pop and I sit at our kitchen table together. Two cups of pale coffee and a plate of leftover tortillas are between us. I spread mine with butter, roll them in a dish of powdered sugar and cinnamon. He studies his phone, holding it carefully in his big hands like he’s waiting for something to lose equilibrium and spill out. I’m also playing a game with balance, seeing how well I can press and roll the elastic dough of our family’s history without burning it.

Notes

[1] Sweet bread, a popular Latinx breakfast.

[2] A Mexican brand of hot chocolate.

[3] Literally “shells,” a variety of pan dulce popular in California.

[4] A muffin-style variety of pan dulce.

[5] Roots, heritage, history.

Jacey de la Torre (she/her/hers) recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in English from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and is currently living in her Bay Area hometown while applying to graduate school to become a credentialed teacher. In addition to writing, her passions include running, reading, and cooking unnecessarily elaborate Mexican meals for her family.

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