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Flour Power

Tortilla flats: Charlotte Saenz teaches her class the tricks of the trade.
Mark A. Manger

"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."

Even worse, they cheat.

"My son and daughter have friends in Albuquerque who send them tortillas from the Albuquerque Tortilla Co.," Charlotte confesses. "As much as I hate to admit it, they're pretty good. They're the only ones my husband will allow in the house. But that's off the record. You can get them in Pueblo, and in a Mexican market in Aurora, too."

To counter the Albuquerque Tortilla Co.'s dangerously delicious influence, Charlotte does what she can to keep tradition alive. Last year she self-published a cookbook called Bienvenidos, which includes family recipes not just for tortillas, but for other Mexican specialties as well. She recently taped an episode of Calling All Cooks (scheduled to air March 19 on the Food Network) in which she demonstrated her griddle greatness. And in her Mexican cooking classes, offered through the Aurora Department of Recreation, she won't let students near an enchilada, tostada or empanada until they first pass Tortillas 101.

"Many of them get pretty good, too," Charlotte says. "Last session, one woman even came up to me and said, 'You saved my marriage.'"

FAKER'S DOZEN

Eventually, you come to love Gorditas. You toast them over the open gas-range flame, smother them with beans, slather them with butter and almost forget about Grandma's.

But then you move from Albuquerque to Denver, where there are no Gorditas. In fact, the only store-bought tortillas you find should be called flaquitas: They're as thin and tasteless as notebook paper, no matter how you toast them.

So you make the pilgrimage to the Albuquerque Tortilla Co. and haul back Gorditas in your trunk. The moment you arrive, your wife takes a call from her sister in Aurora.

"Did you get them?"

"Yeah."

"How many?

"Fourteen."

"Fourteen dozen?"

"Yeah."

"Great. How many do we get?"

"Let me ask him...He said six."

"Six dozen. Cool."

"No. Six tortillas."

Silence.

"He's serious."

SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL

Charlotte stands before a table at the front of the classroom, arranging a sack of Gold Medal flour, a can of Kraft baking powder, a tub of Crisco vegetable shortening, a Pyrex measuring cup filled with water, and a rolling pin.

Fluorescent lights hum overhead. The comal smolders on the kitchenette's stove. The eleven students gawk at the display with expressions ranging from mild apprehension to absolute terror.

Okay, Charlotte says. Let's try it again.

Two cups flour.

One teaspoon baking powder.

One teaspoon salt.

Two tablespoons shortening.

Three-quarters of a cup of lukewarm water.

Charlotte measures the ingredients by rote, sprinkling in the salt and baking soda from her palm.

"I'm trying to think what the recipe says, but at home I do this all without measuring, so I'll just go ahead," she explains.

Heads nod, pens scribble.

"You want to absorb all the flour," she says, kneading the dough. "It shouldn't be too sticky, but if it is, you can add more flour. It's better to have it a little moist rather than a little too dry. Because if it's too dry, you can't add more water. Otherwise, you'll make crackers."

Charlotte forms a two-inch ball of dough, dips it into the flour, pats it into a tiny disc, then slaps it onto the cutting board.

"There's a trick to rolling tortillas," she says. "You want to roll it one way, turn it around and then roll it the other way. But don't flip it over, or else it will stick to the rolling pin."

Charlotte rolls the dough into a perfect circle, pats it back and forth in her hands, then slaps the tortilla onto the hot griddle.

"Use medium heat," she cautions. "A cast-iron comal is the best because it holds the heat evenly. You want them to look nice and brown and evenly cooked. If it feels doughy, then it's not cooked enough."

After a few minutes, Charlotte flips the tortilla over with her fingers.

 

"The thing about tortillas," she continues. "You don't want to stack them while they're hot, because there's so much moisture that they'll get doughy. You want them to cool first, then stack."

Charlotte plucks the tortilla from the griddle, sets it onto a plate with a stick of butter, then passes the plate around the class.

"Okay," she says. "Now each one of you is going to make your own tortilla. And then you're going to eat it."

Heads nod, pens scribble.

"That's cold-blooded."

"At least no one else will get poisoned."

GRANDMOTHER KNOWS BEST

We chew in silence.

One woman nearly broke a nail on the rolling pin. Another fashioned a Gold Medal version of a Rorschach test. Your finished tortilla resembles a spot of roadkill.

"Not bad," Charlotte says. "They have character. And everyone makes them a little different, you know. My sister makes them small and not too thick, and I make mine thin and a little bit bigger. They don't all have to be perfectly round. It's the flavor that's important."

Roadkill is okay.

Charlotte now moves the class forward to the fundamentals of green chile, quesadillas and sopaipillas. Two students begin making the next batch of tortillas. One almost loses her Band-Aid in the mixing bowl, and the other looks up from the rolling pin and squeaks, "Help!"

At that moment, we realize what Grandma already knew: This is hard work. Even if we can do it, should we? Tradition is one thing, but Gorditas are another.

"Where did you say that Mexican market was?"


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