Every couple of days, I walk five blocks into the heart of Santa Tere to visit Beto. “The usual kilo?” he asks, placing a tall paper-wrapped stack on the counter next to the antique metal scale. I dig a ten peso coin out of my pocket and hand it over in exchange for the package. Our well established routine always ends with Beto deflecting my barrage of questions about the history and process of his family’s tortillería (tortilla factory) with a cheeky grin and an open invitation to come at 4 a.m. to witness the magic. “Un día”, I assure him with a playful smirk.
“One day” came last Tuesday. I rose at 3:30 a.m. unable to resist an opportunity to peer into their secret world. Going to work in a tortillería is similar to unlocking the secrets of the Rosetta Stone; it is the key to understanding Mexican culinary traditions. The tortilla was a gift from the Aztecs; I was going to the source of my adopted country's cuisine.
Beto’s family has been supplying my neighborhood with tortillas for fifty-four years. Their tortillería churns out, on average, 880 pounds of corn tortillas, or 7000 tortillas daily.
With a thermos of hot coffee in hand, I hopped on my bike and peddled towards the tortillería. The tic-tic-tic of my wheels cut through the background din of the city’s sleepy hum. In the early morning hours, my bustling urban ‘hood was completely at rest. The piñata makers were still sleeping soundly; vegetable trucks which crawl through the streets blaring bargains through loud speakers, will be parked for several more hours; the street-front stores and restaurants were shuttered, the public space reclaimed as the family’s private domain for the night. Street lights penetrate the stillness and cast a warm glow on empty curbs—a set stage waiting for daily life to play out.
A look of shock ran across Beto’s face as he got out of his truck. “I never thought you would come!” he exclaimed in surprised amusement.
“You’re late!” I laughed and waited for Beto and his father to remove the padlocks from the heavy metal roll-top doors. The tortilla machine was fired up, and I helped haul forty pound bags of soft warm masa (tortilla dough) from out of the back of the truck.
The masa is put into a sink-sized funnel that churns out perfect little disks onto a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt moves over gas flames, looping around three times, flipping the tortillas, and cooking them gently on both sides. Puffy with brown speckles, the tortillas are dumped onto a second conveyor belt and transported to a round bin. Steaming hot, they are weighed out into one kilo stacks and wrapped in clean white butcher paper.
Beto and his crew were fascinated that a tortillería, did not exist in every U.S. neighborhood. If I really wanted to learn how tortillas are made, I would have to come back on Friday at 2:30 a.m., they taunted. Fridays and Saturdays they make the masa at the tortillería. Now they are just messing with me, but darn right I am going to bite!
This post has been entered into the Grantourismo- HomeAway travel writing competition. Does the post resonate with you? Does it inspire you? Have you had similar experiences? How do these kind of everyday experiences compare with visiting a major tourist sight? Lara and Terry of Grantourismo are keen to hear your thoughts.