Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

How 10 tortillas helped me believe in myself

Yes, we can

February 11, 2008

Someone is telling you “no.” It’s a little voice in your head. It has been there for so long it’s indistinguishable from your true voice. No, you can’t do it. Can’t cook French onion soup the way Lipton’s does. Can’t make jam as good as Smucker’s — it has to be good! Can’t put a dinner on the table for a family of four without the help of Tyson’s and Hamburger Helper and the jolly Green Giant. Ho ho ho.

You don’t have time. You don’t know how. People won’t eat your creations. People will say you’re ridiculous. You’ll alienate your spouse. Your mom never taught you; you can’t possibly plan ahead for a few days’ worth of dinners. You have a black thumb, and you burn things.

I know I’m going to have to yell to overcome the message; after all, it has the weight of a century or more, whole generations, hundreds of billions of dollars of marketing and trade and investors who make fabulous livings because you don’t think you can. My shouts will only come across as a whisper. As barely there at all.

But like the breath of your very life, I tell you: you can. You can. YOU CAN!

Sarah’s homemade tortillas.

I will tell you a story about can, and can’t. I love tortillas; I have since I was a child. My kids are just the same; they’d eat tortillas for every meal if I made ‘em. Quesadillas, burritos, tortilla chips, tortillas covered with butter and brown sugar and baked to a crisp. All disappears with much flourish and good cheer. If we were native to northern Mexico, I’m sure we’d fit right in.

Once I watched a PBS special about Authentic Mexican Women making tortillas. They squatted over their work, near the fire; they were dirty and silent and focused and obviously vastly skilled. They worked so fast. I could never do that.

The next day, I went to the store and bought tortillas, again. And it’s been like that ever since.

Then came December 2007 and my personal renaissance. I spent a good portion of my grocery-shopping time flipping over tortilla packages, wondering if “Salem, Oregon” meant that it was made, or distributed from, Salem. I couldn’t find any without preservatives of some sort, and how could I even guess where the flour had come from? None of these packages would work. I was sad. Quesadillas would have to wait, seemingly forever. I couldn’t.

Ah, hell, I thought the next day. I’d just found out that Trader Joe’s had stopped carrying Kettle Chips, the one crispy snacky thing I still held dear as being pretty authentic and local. I started Googling. I found a tortilla recipe on a blog, and it didn’t seem so entirely impossible. The woman who wrote the blog lived in Manhattan, for crying out loud. In my big authentically dirty kitchen in Portland, Oregon, surely I could do the same.

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I mixed the flour, milk, and baking powder, substituting melted butter for the oil. I stood in my quiet kitchen that night, rolling dough into little balls and, later, braving the instructions. Could I really cook these on a dry skillet? Could I really keep the heat high without burning? Could I really roll them out without tearing each one to bits? I couldn’t.

I could. Despite my self-doubt and and considerable trial and error, soon I made it into a rhythm. Now I’m learning to lift my rolling pin at the end of each stroke to keep from making pleats in my circles; now I’m perfecting the art of scooping the extra flour off the griddle each time; now I’m discovering that I can roll a tortilla in less time than it takes another one to cook, leaving me precious seconds free to bounce the fussy baby I had tied in a bright baby carrier on my back, or to listen to a funny joke from a small boy.

I felt as though I might even look Authentically Mexican, were it not for the Irish freckles and wildly floral thrift-store apron over my funky American jeans.

I dared to rip off a bit from one of the lovely almost-burnt tortillas, and spread it with a bit of butter. Delicious! This was how it was supposed to be. I finished the plate of dough balls with growing excitement, with a sense of bliss. The possibilities welled up inside of me. This is it! This is the moment. I can make bread! I can put a pot of chicken stock on the stove before dinner! I can grow my own sprouts!

I can make tortillas.

I can. I can! And so can you.

There are 7 comments on this item
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1. by Janice on Feb 11, 2008 at 1:51 PM PST

Recipe? My mouth is watering and I’m all set to go fire up my cast iron, grab my rolling pin, get to work . . . but there’s no recipe!

2. by cafemama on Feb 11, 2008 at 1:58 PM PST

Sorry Janice! Here’s the link to the Homesick Texan’s tortillas:

I substituted melted butter for vegetable oil, and made my tortillas a bit smaller than she says (not on purpose), but everything else is the same.

3. by Holly on Feb 14, 2008 at 2:21 PM PST

Yay! Thanks for sharing this! She’s also got a recipe for corn tortillas which is great, because I have a big bag of masa harina in my freezer waiting to be used.

4. by Janice on Feb 16, 2008 at 9:13 PM PST

I made these and they were fabulous. The recipe was super easy and fresh tortillas are hard to beat. Even the kids liked them, and I was sure they’d be put off by the blackened spots.

The only problem is that I burnt some of the finish off my cast iron pan (not for the first time). Maybe I had the heat too high? They were definitely cooking quicker than 30 seconds per side, and I had the heat on medium high most of the time. Maybe I should oil the pan before I cook the first one? The recipe says to use a dry pan, but I will probably try oiling it next time.

5. by vesperlight on Aug 23, 2008 at 6:41 PM PDT

I tried these today -- it came out well, despite the fact that I used all whole wheat bread flour....

Now it’s time for you to move on to corn tortillas...the real kind, the kind where you start with whole corn and a big pot of water and a handful of cal-lime. Go on, I dare you. If I can do it, you can do. I use a Vitamixer to grind with. Sometimes it works and sometimes I get glue.

Best directions are probably in Diane Kennedy’s cookbooks but you can find online as well.

6. by Emily Murnen on Mar 10, 2009 at 7:35 AM PDT

I realize I am over a year late for this post, but I was just looking for a good tortilla recipe this past weekend, but ended up making pita bread instead. I definitely know what I will be making next weekend. Thanks for sharing!

7. by DawnHeather Simmons on Mar 11, 2009 at 6:24 AM PDT

Thanks! I just joined a couple days ago, and I read this just now. It’s funny, I make tamales from scratch (and don’t even have a recipe), so I always have masa (for corn tortillas) in my kitchen, but I have never tried doing homemade tortillas because I always thought they would be “too hard.” Now I know I have to try!

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