A Little Curiosity … An Unexpected Afternoon with a Taco Stand Family

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.

Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

blue corn tortilla

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.

Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

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.

Blue corn tortilla dough. Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

Veggies and blue corn tortillas on the stove.

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.

Dried ears of blue corn. Soaking blue corn kernels

Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

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. :)

Learning how to make blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

blue corn tortillas in from a street food vendor in Mexico.

The friendly daughter, she indulged each of my questions and responded in patient, slow Spanish.

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.

Fried tortilla with guacamole, sour cream and tomato

Kitchen wisdom from taco stand grandma: Fry your old, stale tortillas crispy and add yummy toppings!

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.

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26 Responses to A Little Curiosity … An Unexpected Afternoon with a Taco Stand Family

  1. YesNomads February 6, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Love your little story and the images. It feels as if I sat right next to you. The blue dough almost seems like cement. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing ;-)

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 6, 2015 at 11:31 am #

      Thanks! I loved meeting the family and hearing their story. :)

  2. Sofie Couwenbergh April 30, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    LOVE this post. This is what makes travel, I think. The encounters and experience you hadn’t really planned on. You could’ve just gotten your meal and headed back inside. Instead, look what you got out of it.
    Very cool:)

  3. catdancingranch August 1, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    This is a spectacular article. Could you tell me if the corn kernels were dried before they were soaked, or is fresh corn used? This may be an elementary question for some, but not for me!

    • ShannonOD August 1, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      That’s a great question! They dry them first I believe, soak them in hot water, then in the liming solution. A bit more on it here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization#Process, which is what I used to research the article when I was writing! :)

      • catdancingranch August 1, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

        Thanks for your reply, Shannon. I live in the southwest, a New England transplant, familiar with Mexican cooking, but don’t have the tortilla & tamale skillset. I have a Yaqui friend who might be able to help me with this.

        I’ve had fresh from the grill corn tortillas (from a small taqueria in South Tucson), and they are nothing short of amazing, absolutely unlike supermarket offerings. I’m trying to go non-GMO, so hope I can source the dried kernels, will prolly start with blue corn meal.

        When I do make them, will let you know once I’ve come up with a recipe that works for Anglos!

        Sent from Windows Mail

        • Shannon O'Donnell August 2, 2013 at 12:37 am #

          Ooo, I would love that, thanks so much and I look forward to hearing about that venture into finding and making it from scratch, they really do taste entirely different! :)

  4. Rebecca and the World July 7, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    I love experiences like this! And of course you’ve captured it beautifully with your photos.

    • ShannonOD July 7, 2013 at 9:12 am #

      Thanks Rebecca, I was so excited when I saw the blue dough that I think the woman could sense my enthusiasm and really gave me a great walk-through. :)

  5. Andrea and John May 27, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Blue corn tortillas are awesome – I would love to try them fresh like this! Great day

    • ShannonOD May 27, 2013 at 10:27 am #

      I think they just make it more fun to eat too, since they are so neat looking. Thanks guys, hope you have a wonderful day as well!! :)

  6. Frank Candamil May 25, 2013 at 1:47 am #

    Great read. Huge take away for me in this post is language barrier. Wish I could have been there to get you that last 30%. Being a fluent spanish speaker, I’ve made it a big point in my South American travels to help others get the entire story. Hate to see people nod their way through a story in politeness . I’d rather be a bit forward and just jump in and help fellow travelers get the full enchilada; if you will. ;) So many of those interruptions have brought about great memories and friendships.

    Hope someone out there looks out for me when get to a country where I don’t speak the language.

    And, now I want tacos and enchiladas.

    • ShannonOD May 26, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      Thank you Frank, it would have been so good to have you along because I know I likely missed a lot of the good bits of the story. I never mind when others step in though to help if I’m clearly not getting it, especially if it’s for an in-depth conversation where the details make a big difference.

      Hope you hunted down some tacos! :)

      • Frank Candamil May 30, 2013 at 2:28 am #

        Actually, after my comment I didn’t find tacos but enjoyed my last great Peruvian meal before my flight back to the states. After five months in South American and only two days back in Tampa, I’m already to head back. But just before I do, I think the Taco Bus is in order.

        • ShannonOD May 30, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

          Back already! When I’m in Orlando this summer we should do coffee and you can tell me about your South American adventures :)

          • Frank Candamil May 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

            Yes, back unfortunately. Patagonia & Argentina as whole were chalk full experience, yet economically draining. So instead of being careless, came back to the states to pick up some extra design work to minimize the bleeding and head back out soon enough. South East Asia is on my radar, and I’m sure you have more than coffee breaks worth of knowledge to share— so coffee it is. :)

  7. Drew Meyers May 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Awesome insight into the local people. You understand story telling — which is a skill few have. And I suspect, why you have such an engaged following here :)

    • ShannonOD May 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

      Thanks Drew, the storytelling and working on crafting that has been a focus these past couple years :)

  8. islandmomma May 24, 2013 at 5:14 am #

    Never had a craving for leftovers before – but now I do!

    Seriously, aren’t these the best sort of encounters (and the most interesting for others to read about, too. Had a brief one this week with some hunters with whom hadn’t expected or intended to bump into, but they were so interesting and friendly. Made my day.

    Now I feel like running out and roaming around until I encounter someone interesting wandering the streets! Love this post!

    • ShannonOD May 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      Hehe! Excellent, glad to get you excited for what is often a chore (eating leftovers).

      As for wandering the streets — the world over it’s the best memories I have, but I forget it sometimes when I get caught up in either writing/blogging and doing the more typical travel things. The hunters sound like a fascinating happenstance meeting! :)

  9. Lindsay Hogg May 22, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    sounds like m idea of perfection

  10. Rika at Cubicle Throwdown May 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    I love this! Also, I am totally guilty of old tortillas in the fridge. I’m going to follow her advice!

    • ShannonOD May 21, 2013 at 9:58 am #

      You won’t regret it! I am always looking for an excuse to use sour cream, so this was mine :)

  11. Kenneth R Smith May 20, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Nice post! It’s amazing how rewarding travel becomes if you overcome your fears and interact on a personal level. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • ShannonOD May 21, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      Thanks Kenneth, it’s so true that it can be easy to live inside a shell and forget to strip off the fears and ask questions about what you see around you on the road :)