USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘tortillas’

Use of tortillas

“I think the history of toritllas in my family is a unique one. Even though I consider myself “main stream” American in most aspects, I am Mexican-American on my mothers side and German and English on my dad’s side. Even though we didn’t speak Spanish in my home, nor did we eat Mexican food in my home on a regular basis, I believe our use of tortillas would be thought of as unusual by most Americans.

For one thing my grandma Lucy showed me how to roll tortillas during my pre-school years. My grandma Lucy came to the United States from Mexico when she was 3. She and her parents crossed the border with a cow. *laughs* My grandmother would stand me on a kitchen chair so I could reach the counter top and proceeded to show me how to pinch off a ball of dough and roll it into a flat tortilla. She was very quick and skilled with her technique so that her tortillas always came out perfectly round and even in thickness, turning and rotating the dough as she went. Mine however, we’re very wonky. But she didn’t seem to mind.

Years later, she use to brag to me that her tortillas were now made of seven grains. Although uneducated, my grandmother learned the latest health trends in cooking and took many community courses. She was also a skilled seamstress.

Within my nuclear family household, there were always corn tortillas on hand. While most Americans think of corn tortillas as a condiment alongside a platter of Mexican food, we used tortillas as the base for a snack. I’m not even talking about quesadillas. We threw our corn tortillas onto a gas burner until they became lightly blackened. Then we would stuff them with a slice of cold cheddar cheese, a hot dog, scrambled eggs or even peanut butter which would melt inside the hot tortilla.”

What types of flour did she use?:

“I think white flour, whole wheat flour, garbanzo flour, barley flour, wheat germ and I can’t remember the others.

Have you ever made tortillas from scratch?:

“Haha no. Only my grandma did that, not even my mom.”

The informant, my mother explains that in her childhood her family did not maintain many, if any Mexican traditions or customs. The one that did stick though, was tortillas being a commonplace item in her household. However, her family used tortillas beyond an American conception of what tortillas can be used for. They didn’t just use them on the side or to wrap burritos, they used them as a base for creating different snacks.

It is also interesting to note that the tradition of making the tortillas ended with her grandmother, my great-grandmother. But the unique use of them got passed on through the generations. My mother made me some of these same snacks as a kid growing up. And now this is how I heat up tortillas, directly on the burner. A warm, blackened tortilla with a thick slice of cold cheddar cheese is surprisingly satisfying. My mom would also make another recipe she learned from her grandmother using the tortillas that included: torn up corn tortillas, sliced hot dogs and scrambled eggs.


Rituals, festivals, holidays

Foodways – Mexican

The informant learned the following Mexican foodways from her father’s great-aunt, who was Mexican.

She and her twin sister would make stovetop buttered tortillas and the family would make flatbreads and have tamales at Christmas: “There were little things that we would do when we were younger, um, like take a tortilla, put it on the oven [stove], uh, which had an open flame as opposed to most now that are just electric and just warm it up on there and put butter on it and eat it, uh, which I don’t see anyone do these days, but I remember definitely growing up doing little things like that. Making flatbreads, um . . . lots of peasant food, I guess you would call it for, you know, growing up in a big family in Southern California with slightly, slightly, um, slightly ethnic spin on things . . . I mean, my dad’s side of the family definitely, um, Mexican, Spanish, uh, foods that I would—they would make, like, um, tamales and stuff around Christmas time.”

The buttered tortillas were an anytime snack, but baking flatbread was special and tamales were a Christmas treat.

The informant describes the making of the tamales as “way complicated and a little boring . . . but they were good.”

The informant and her sister, as children of a cross-cultural marriage, inhabited a liminal space so far as traditional foodways went. The tortillas, clearly, have roots in the Hispanic tradition, but putting butter on them seems like a purely American way to eat bread. The informant seems to have rejected her ethnic childhood diet, as she calls it “peasant food,” which has a negative connotation. Alice Guadalupe Tapp, another Southern California resident with Mexican ancestry, writes about the tradition of having tamales at Christmas in her cookbook Tamales 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Traditional Tamales, mentioning that her family sometimes made more than 600 tamales for the winter holidays (9).


Guadalupe Tapp, Alice. Tamales 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Traditional Tamales. New York: Ten Speed, 2002.