Last weekend, I had one of types of experiences that keeps me traveling all these years. And there are elements of it that won’t convey well as I share the hour I spent with a taco stand family from the interior of Mexico, but its the pieces of their story, the new information about their culture that gave me an unexpected window into the lives of the people who surround me each day.
Though it started as just lunch, the fun that my open, earnest questions brought to the encounter reminded me that curiosity—the need to find out more, find out why, how, and the story behind something—is a central part of the travel experience and can transform a place and a people.
When I sat down at a pop-up-taco stand across the street from my apartment, I was mostly leading with one thought: “feed.me.now .”
Minutes later, with a cold jamaica agua fresca and a potato, mushroom, and cheese taco taking away my single-minded focus on obtaining food, I pull out of my self-focus and strike up a conversation with the grandmother who was peering at me with open curiosity and a glint of humor as I ungracefully tackled my taco (it was not pretty: sauce dripping down my arm, chunks plopping onto my plate, and me attacking my food like a half-starved dog).
This taco stand was new; in fact I had only seen it open for the past two days, taking up the corner outside of a dusty, unused storefront that hadn’t seen love in a good decade. San Pancho is tiny town and the arrival of new food sources is not to be taken lightly. Putting my mediocre Spanish to use, I began to ask questions. The first thing I had noticed before dispatching with my lunch was the blue corn tortilla—so pretty and the only place in town serving them. So I asked the grandma where they source their corn.
Turns out, the taco stand was only in town for three days and the family is from the deep interior of Mexico but came to San Pancho, a beach town, for the long weekend and to perhaps make some money since the tourist trail is thinner in other regions of Mexico. As we talked more, the daughter chimed in as she continued to pat, press, and fry fresh blue tortillas. The corn came from their own fields and this is really the only type of tortilla they ever eat as a result.
We talked more and I made my way over to her prep table, pointing at things and questioning her about their use. When she could tell I was genuinely interested in the process (I think my request to paparazzi her as she molded the pale blue dough tipped her off), her entire demeanor opened up and she shifted her task from making tortillas to instead walking me through the process of making tortillas.
There is a tortilleria here in town with a huge machine capable of processing hundreds of plain white corn tortillas, but it was her handmade process that fascinated me: the milky blue dough that transforms into a dark navy disk as it fries on the grill.
The street stand was empty of others, so the daughter walked me through the process for fresh corn tortillas, even pulling her son into the mix.
The process for making corn dough, or rather masa de maíz, has not changed since ancient times, and is quite simple. The large, mottled blue and yellow corn kernels soak for a few hours in lime water, which loosens and softens the kernels. They are then fed through the grinder, turning them into a soft and mushy pile of dough that can be dried and stored, or used immediately exactly as is to make delicious, fresh corn tortilla rounds.
The son was thrilled to show me the process … do you see, do you see how thrilled he is?! As much as I joke, he was happier than he looks, each time I raised the camera he got serious and “official” looking.
He was a good teacher too, and even gently chastised me as I took a turn on the grinder. Apparently my grinding wasn’t steady enough and I was making the corn the wrong texture … the young boy’s assessment made his grandmother hoot with laughter. In fact, her guffaws were the backdrop for the entire lesson as she watched me photograph each part of the process. I no doubt looked a little silly to her since it’s as natural as breathing to this family, and even something as simple as turning a crank flummoxed the gringo. :)
The taco stand is a family affair and as more hungry people arrived, I contented to sit next to the grandmother once more and chat with her as they prepared a stack of fresh tortillas for me to take home. She was a funny lady and my only regret is that my questionable Spanish meant I only understood about 70% of her stories. But even though I tried to smile and nod through it, to piece together elements as best as possible, it was five minutes later that I realized she knew I wasn’t catching it all. (And here I thought myself a good actress!)
I bagged my hot tortillas, curiosity sated and feeling happy to have learned so much on what started as merely a quick run for lunch. Then grandma called me over for one last piece of advice. She said, “I’ll slow down now so you understand. You take these home and they will last one week. After a week, the ones that are left, you be a good girl and you fry them up. Not too hard for you to do I think? You just fry the old tortilla very crispy, then add-on some sour cream or avocado, and [insert yummy noises now].”
And with that advice, she shooed me away so she could help her daughter serve the newcomers.
And so, it is with that kitchen wisdom that I will now leave you as well since I think it’s pretty handy advice for the old tortillas that always end up sitting for months at the bottom of the fridge (you know you probably have some in there now, don’t deny it). It’s tasty and these served me as a yummy snack for several days in a row.