Flour Power

The queen of torts takes a cooking class full circle.

"Did you see that?"

In a blur of movements from measuring cup to rolling pin to cast-iron griddle, Charlotte Saenz mixes, rolls, toasts and then presents the perfect homemade tortilla to her Aurora cooking class.

"You make it look so easy."

"Do you cater?"

"What about the aluminum tortilla press Santa gave me for Christmas?"

"It's for corn tortillas," Charlotte says. "Okay. Who wants to go first?"

PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT

"You know, there's really only one thing I'd like you to do before we get married."

"What's that?"

"Make tortillas."

"What!"

"Make tortillas."

"Yeah, right."

"No, I'm serious. Ask your grandma to teach you. Now that I'm going to be a husband, I'm entitled to fresh tortillas with every meal. That's part of the deal."

"Yeah, right."

"No, I'm serious."

GRANDFATHER KNOWS BEST

Once upon a time, Grandma stood at her kitchen counter -- flour dusting her hair, rolling pin in her hand -- and made tortillas. At a nearby table, Grandpa sat with his plate of chopped steak, fried potatoes, refried beans and green chile, waiting.

He wouldn't eat without tortillas. No matter what the meal or how hungry he was, he didn't move a muscle until Grandma slapped a thick, salty tortilla onto his plate.

She mixed.

He waited.

She rolled.

He waited.

She toasted.

He waited.

"Are they ready yet?"

Slap!

"Okay, viejo. Eat!"

Grandpa ripped off a chunk of tortilla and, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, scooped up a mouthful of steak, beans, potatoes and chile.

All was well.

Until Luther Martinez came along. Martinez started out selling frozen green chile and red-chile pods to restaurants and merchants across Albuquerque. Everywhere he went, he heard the same lament: "Why doesn't anyone make tortillas that taste like homemade?" So Martinez bought a secondhand tortilla maker in El Paso and tinkered with taste, texture and toasty burn spots. Then he placed mass-produced tortillas with catchy names like Home-Style and Little Rosas and Gorditas on grocery-store shelves, and he waited.

But he didn't wait long. Surprising both Martinez and themselves, people lined up to buy the tortillas. Soon the Albuquerque Tortilla Co. had a production plant with gigantic mixing, rolling and roasting machines that mixed, rolled and roasted 300,000 dozen tortillas each week. And as fast as he could make them, people bought them.

Martinez found himself riding the wave of a nationwide trend, as tortillas became a $6 billion industry. Tortillas passed bagels as the top-selling ethnic bread product. Tortillas evolved into something called "wraps," which transformed everything from lasagna to egg rolls into glorified burritos.

Grandma removed her apron and set aside her rolling pin. She stocked her fridge with Gorditas.

Come dinnertime, Grandpa sat at the table, waiting.

THE WAY THE TORTILLA CRUMBLES

After your fiancée's rebuke, you stand at the kitchen counter with a bowl of flour, vegetable shortening, a cup of warm water, a pinch of salt and instructions from Grandma. You mix the dough, which comes out too sticky, roll out the dough, which resembles the state of Florida, then slap the dough onto a frying pan, which is coated with Teflon.

She glances over your shoulder.

"What's that?"

"Don't ask."

"Can I try it?"

"Be my guest."

Crunch, crunch.

"Well?"

"Tastes like crackers."

OUR LADY OF THE GRIDDLE

Charlotte Saenz grew up in Florence, the second-youngest of ten children. At dawn each day, before her dad went to work at the cement factory, her mom stood beside a wood-burning stove with a rolling pin fashioned from a sawed-off broom handle, thumping out tortillas. As soon as she could toddle up to the table, Charlotte brought her own tiny mixing bowl.

"That's just the way it was," she recalls. "Tortillas were part of every meal. You just made them fresh every day."

At the age of eleven, Charlotte stepped up to the griddle. Her mother was away somewhere, suppertime was approaching, and her dad was getting hungry. So she mixed the ingredients and rolled a blob that made her brother howl.

"Wow!" he said. "That looks like a map of the United States. Can I take it with me to class tomorrow?"

"Leave her alone," her father said. "It doesn't matter what it looks like. It's the taste that's important. You can't tell what it looks like when you make a burrito, anyway."

Charlotte went back to work. And after a few more spins with the rolling pin, her brother wasn't laughing: He was too busy eating. Years later, when Charlotte got married and moved to Montana, her dad presented her with a cast-iron comal (a lid from her mom's wood-burning stove) and a rolling pin that he'd sanded and oiled himself.

Tortilla-making is becoming a lost art, says Charlotte, a petite, energetic woman with oval glasses and a short swirl of salt-and-pepper hair. She can count on her fingers the number of people -- including family members and friends -- who still know what to do with a bowl of flour and a hot griddle.

"I see my brothers now, and not all of their wives know how to make them," she says. "So they just sit there at the table, longing."

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