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We were not makers of bread in my family. Until I became an adult, I would not know the rich sensory pleasure that the simple mixing of flour, eggs, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and just a pinch of salt could provide. Bread came to us sterile and square, white and wrapped in plastic, sometimes with a jaunty middle split where, we were told, butter had been lovingly brushed. Where that butter, and its flavor, might have disappeared to in the meantime was never fully explained.
Instead, we made, and ate, tortillas. Flat and round, cream-colored with dark brown spots where they had been kissed by the griddle, each sculpted in turn by the strong brown hands of my mother. I wondered at the ease and speed with which she was able to measure and mix ingredients for the recipe which was not written down, which perhaps had never been written down. Flour, baking powder, water just this side of boiling, shortening, salt, measured not with spoons or cups but with hands and eyes. The perfect hollow formed by cupping the fingers of one of her hands told her how much salt to use; I never knew–still don’t know–if my hands were capable of forming a cup of the correct size.
My mother mixed tortilla dough using only her hands; only her hands could tell her if the dough was right, if it needed more flour, hotter water, more shortening. I feared my mother’s hands; they were equally likely, at any given time, to dole out a grudging caress or dart forward with a swift slap to punish some perceived slight or misdeed–or even, at times, a facial expression which lacked the proper respect. Those hands, as we children were reminded multiple times, held the terrible power of life and death over us. To watch them at work was terrifying and beautiful. Out of the chaos of wet flour and the cauldron of her anger, again and again she raised armies of perfectly identical, slightly flattened balls of dough that seemed to exhale slightly as they left the heat of her hands and waited atop a clean dishtowel for their fate.
I was never good enough at making tortillas for my mother’s liking. My hands were, quite simply, the wrong hands. My childish fingers didn’t mix or form dough correctly; my clumsiness with a rolling pin turned out lumpy, oblong tortillas, not the perfectly round and flat discs my mother’s labors invariably produced. I was relegated to turning the floury discs as they toasted atop the comal, the solid iron griddle made and sold expressly for this purpose.
The comal is unforgiving; her kiss is one you never forget. My mother met her head-on and unafraid, grabbing and flipping the tortillas with nimble fingertips as first one side, then the other, bubbled and blistered and toasted to perfection. Berated for using a fork to turn the thin discs because it might leave holes, I, too, had to learn to snatch up the tortillas with only my fingers. The resistance my fingertips show to heat to this day, and which my children always remark upon as I lift newly baked potatoes from a cookie sheet or tear apart hot pizza and freshly fried chicken so it won’t burn their tender mouths, dates from my time as a tortilla-maker’s apprentice.
Once, when I was a teenager, I felt inspired to bake bread, to bake challah bread, to express the Jewishness I had always felt inside of me. I had never seen bread being baked, did not understand the mechanics of rising and proofing. The loaf was tiny and dense. My mother said nothing other than that I should clean up all the mess I had made; she had, by that time, come to regard me almost as an alien presence in her home, a recipe gone bad, a dough imperfectly mixed.
No, we were not makers of bread. And my mother will never understand why I am not more like her, any more than I will ever understand why I will never be good enough, why I will always disappoint her. But every year at Passover when we lift the matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” I think of my mother and all the line of my ancestresses, their love and anger, their tears and bitterness.