A few weeks ago, I had a dream where I’m standing in my kitchen and staring into a large black pan on my stove. In the pan, I’m cooking a corn tortilla. The smell of masa fills the room and the heat of the hot pan hits my face. As the tortilla cooks, it puffs up. Air perfectly fills every crevice of the tortilla and it expands in height, exactly as it’s supposed to. As the tortilla then deflates, I wake up, and the anxiety I’ve felt all week begins to deflate as well.
For the past two months, I’ve been making corn tortillas every week. My tía (aunt) once showed me how to make them when I was 13 and visiting my family in California. However, it’s only years later in quarantine that I’ve finally started to make my own — both as a way to embrace my Mexican heritage and to avoid having to wait on line outside of a grocery store every time I have a hankering for a quesadilla.
I live in New York, where it’s been much easier for me to access Jewish culture than Mexican culture. When I enrolled in college, for instance, I looked for two clubs to join – a Jewish culture club and a Mexican/Hispanic heritage club. I found the former but not the latter. New York City has a much larger Jewish than Mexican population; I have only Jewish relatives on the East Coast. I’ve found an abundance of Jewish communities to join and consistently meet new Jewish peers, but lack the same constant contact with Mexicanidad.
The religious aspects of being Jewish also means I engage with it on a much more consistent basis. Without a Mexican community or family close by, my contact with the culture can easily be limited to long distance phone calls to relatives, occasionally ordering in Spanish at a restaurant, and reading Pedro Páramo.
I’m a cook at heart and when I want to engage with something – whether it be a culture or a person – it will usually start with food. Making homemade tortillas – as I imagine past generations of my family doing – was a way I found to engage with Mexicanidad on a regular basis. It’s a simple way of incorporating it into my life, and also an activity that wasn’t dependent on anyone else.
Before I decided to try to make tortillas, I knew I would either experience humiliating failure or ego-flattering success. But since 2020 is also the year that I learned how to bake challah, the possibility of stroking my ego won out. Not only did my dive into cooking tortillas convince me to divorce the store-bought version, but the methodical process of making them has become one of the most relaxing activities I’ve done in these past few months of stress and uncertainty.
Cooking tortillas is a multi-step process that requires both patience and one’s full attention. I first mix together masa and water, then roll a small amount of the mixture into a ball, afterwards flattening the ball with a tortilla press that gives the tortilla its shape. I then place the uncooked tortilla onto a hot pan, cooking it for about three minutes and flipping it twice during that time. While the tortilla is cooking, I get started on the next one. The process repeats and repeats, making me feel like I’m my own command line: form a ball of the masa mixture, shape it in the tortilla press, put it in the pan, form the next tortilla, and on and on. The sensation is not unlike knitting, an activity that has proven to lower heart rate because of the repetitive motions of the needles.
When I start to feel anxious nowadays, I find myself walking into the kitchen and grabbing my bag of masa. After the relaxing cooking process, I leave the kitchen with a stack of this soft, thin, and versatile Mexican staple. They’re much more fresh and flavorful than what you can find in the store — and are perfect to use to turn into chilaquiles, tacos, tortilla chips, etc. I imagine past and current generations of my family making the same corn tortillas, and using them in similar ways, and feel bonded to them in a new way.
There’s still one step I’m mastering in my adventure in tortilla making: ensuring that each tortilla fully puffs up in the last 20 seconds of cooking before deflating. This last step in the cooking process is where the delicious, light layers in a corn tortilla come from. It’s what distinguishes a good tortilla from a great tortilla. To achieve that perfect final note, I must delicately balance the temperature of the pan: too low of a flame and the tortilla will never puff up, too high of a flame and the tortilla will burn or get too crunchy.
I’m slowly learning the steps to this dance, getting better and better at landing the denouement. Each time I cook a batch of tortillas, and more of them puff up, I find what today is a rare feeling of order and control. I often think about my tortilla dream when I’m out of the kitchen and feeling stressed and powerless – how it was me, my abilities, and my agency that willed the tortilla up into a powerful, full dome.
How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.