Sitting at the counter of a very good Mexican bistro, I slipped easily into a zen-like trance watching a woman on the kitchen staff make one tortilla after another. I sipped my wine, finished my yummy-yummy shredded pork tamales, and began to doodle in my open journal, but I didn’t get far before I zoned out again watching the tortilla maker roll, press, pat, and cook a mountain of dough into a mountain of perfectly formed tortillas.
I came here for a change of scene. To try something new. To stroll through a holiday pop-up market. The market, a few blocks away from the bistro, was nothing more than a typical street market with the usual semi-interesting handmade and second-hand flea market wares. For all its promotion, it was a disappointing rag-tag collective of 14 vendors huddled in the middle of a large parking lot under 10×10 canopies.
“The weather kept everyone away,” a booth vendor told me.
She assured me at least 50 vendors said they’d show up. Obviously, they changed their minds. The weather was definitely miserable: Dark clouds, intermittent heavy showers and strong northerly winds. In summer, northern winds bring fair weather and warm sun, but this time of year, they bring a stinging cold that slices through all sorts of clothing, no matter how bundled up you are.
I felt sorry for the small motley group of vendors that ignored the gloomy winter forecast. I browsed their meager offerings with as much considered attention as I could without looking too interested. I have a deep respect for all artisans’ effort to make a go of it, but I didn’t want to give false hope. I donated a few dollars to what cause I wasn’t sure in order to have my picture taken with a bald, whiskerless, 30-something Santa and his drag queen mis’ess. I would show you the picture, but I’ve yet to receive it.
My Christmas shopping excursion a bust, I made my way to the Mexican bistro. I heard about the place a couple of times before. Three-thirty in the afternoon on a dreary winter Sunday and the joint was a hoppin’ oasis of full tables, bright colors, loud music and steaming warmth. I found a place at the kitchen counter, and took out my journal with all intention of writing a bit, but after a short while was perfectly content to watch the tortilla woman rhythmically ply her culinary craft.
She starts with a single quick dip of the latexed fingers of her left hand into a bowl of water, and quickly rubs the palm of her other hand with her wetted fingers before scooping up a bit of white corn meal dough. The dough is piled high in a giant metal mixing bowl, and as she progresses in her task, she carves a sharp, narrow canyon down the middle of the mound.
Each bit of dough she’s scooped into her palm is rolled into a small ball between her hands. She then slaps the ball down onto a piece of plastic that lines a round metal plate, and gives it a single, hard press with her fingers. She places another piece of plastic liner on top and pulls the opposite hinged metal plate by its handle on top of the base plate, giving it a good press. She flips it back open, removes the top plastic liner and then a perfectly formed, evenly round tortilla.
Each tortilla is flopped onto a small griddle beside her. She flips the ones already there, and tosses the cooked ones into an extra-large basket next to the griddle, creating a mountain of tortillas. Every few minutes kitchen and wait staff gather up a few tortillas to either put in a tableside basket, or take into the larger kitchen behind the swinging doors.
I don’t know exactly, but I guess I sat there in my trance for the better part of an hour. I finished the last sip of wine, paid my bill and thanked her. She broke her rhythmic task, holding up her hand to me to wait a moment. She wrapped three tortillas in foil and handed them to me.
“Gracias! Come back again!”
What a nice early Christmas gift.