Why does food taste better when you know where it comes from? Because history flavors every bite we eat. In “Desert Terroir,” Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on a personal trip into the southwestern borderlands to discover the terroir that makes this desert so delicious.
COVER: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS
Desert Terroir (University of Texas Press, 2012) is a celebration of delicious food. To savor the terroir — the “taste of the place” — of the borderlands, Gary Paul Nabhan presents a cornucopia of local foods as well as food experiences that range from the foraging of Cabeza de Vaca and his shipwrecked companions to a modern-day camping expedition on the Rio Grande. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, “A Flour Blooms,” Nabhan makes a local friend who crafts memorable homemade tortillas from fragrant mesquite flour.
How does the taste of a place get into the food we eat? Whenever I try to answer that question, or whenever I take a bite out of one of the golden-colored tortillas I keep in our kitchen, I close my eyes and search for the image of Esperanza’s hands that is engraved into my brain cells. Her soft but powerful palms are shaping another dough ball into a patty, and shaping that patty into a circular disk. Her nimble fingers, dusted with mesquite flour, are stretching the edges of that disk, spinning it around in her hands until it is ready to whirl onto the comal to be baked and tinted golden by the grilling. Her fingertips deftly lift the lip of the tortilla from the red-hot comal just enough so that her fingers can snatch it away from being burnt by the fire and fling it atop a stack of other such disks that are cooling down on a white cotton towel not far from the comal.
Laminas were what some zoot-suited pachucos used to call the tortillas made by their mothers, sisters, and sweethearts in Tucson and East L.A. in the forties. Long-playing records, they called them. Records of their mothers’ skill, their sisters’ and girlfriends’ apprenticeships with the masters. The makers of the master disks.
“Spin me another disk, Ese. . . . Play me another tune on that lamina, Tina. . . . And fill it up with frijoles. . . . Music to my ears, Ese, music to my ears . . .”
I first met Esperanza on a street corner in La Abra, the valley to the west of Tucson where street corners hardly exist, for the roads are mostly of dirt, wide terracerías with lots of potholes.
But there she was, taking turns with her father, selling her mother’s wares—delicious Sonoran-style wheat tortillas—by the dozen. At first it was just to help her folks out, for she had a job in town that paid her well and taught her skills. She was in her mid-thirties, I guessed, and she was determined, bright, vivacious, and confident speaking both Spanish and English.
In those days, whenever I wasn’t gardening, foraging, or quail hunting, I was out on the prowl, trying to figure out what my neighbors grew that they would sell or trade in ways that fell outside the formal food economy.
I envisioned Javier and his daughter, Esperanza, as the kind of neighbors with whom you can banter and barter. They had told me about Esperanza’s mother, about how the family was originally from Sonora, and how they lived out off Sandario Road where Camino Lucido breaks down into a dozen driveways that all flow like tributaries to a desert river whenever las equipatas rain down in the winter. And they told me that it was hard being out on a street corner in the summer, hawking tortillas, when folks drove by without even cracking open a window in their air-conditioned SUVs, and the tortillas instead of dollars went back home to Camino Lucido in the evening.
And then one evening, shortly after returning from the coast of Sonora with a sack of local mesquite flour, I saw Esperanza and asked if she or her mother would mind making me some mesquite flour tortillas instead of ones from wheat.
“From the péchita around here?” she asked uncomfortably, as if I were suggesting that she go out and forage mesquite pods each day on top of everything else she was trying to do.
“No, no. Not exactly. That’s not what I’m proposing. What I mean is this: I’ll give you some mesquite flour each time we meet. Then the next time I see you, I mean, when you’re ready, you give me back some mesquite tortillas. You don’t need to pay for the mesquite flour really. I’ll just pay you the same per dozen as if I’m buying your typical tortillas.”
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “we’ll give it a try, but I really can’t promise you anything. It may take a while to figure out how to make a mesquite tortilla. I don’t know if they can be as soft and as pliable as my mother’s other tortillas. But if she won’t try it, I will, I guess . . .”
I gave Esperanza a five-pound bag of mesquite flour and my telephone number, and thought for a moment that it might be the last I ever saw or heard of her. What a silly thing to ask of someone, I thought to myself. Her family makes some of the best wheat-flour tortillas in the world; why would they want to change to making them with a kind of flour that hardly anyone in Tucson has even tasted? I worried that I’d been far too presumptuous, and at worst, may have insulted her with my commission.
We both left the street corner going in different directions, and Esperanza’s car sailed off through the waves of dust that washed across La Abra valley during the dry season.
A week or so later, I received a call, and at first couldn’t figure out who it was on the line.
“Gary, I have them ready for you to try. I think they’re delicious. Pues. Well, you come and see for yourself . . .”
“See what?” I asked, just as I realized that it was Esperanza’s voice coming to me over the phone.
“The tortillas! I’ve made some pretty good mesquite tortillas!”
I drove my pickup truck, Old Paint, as fast as I could down to Ajo Way, our street corner rendezvous. Esperanza was already there, her hair glowing in the late-afternoon sunlight, her face beaming. She opened up a white cotton towel and there inside were some gorgeous golden tortillas, still warm to the touch. She had finished the batch within the previous hour, and had called me as soon as they were done.
“Well, go ahead and try one. . . . They’re all for you.”
I accepted a tortilla from her hands—it was the first time that I had looked at her lovely hands—and took a bite. Its flavor was unlike that of any tortilla I’d ever eaten. A warm, rich, cinnamon fragrance rose from it, and its texture was nearly as fine as that of her mother’s flour tortillas.
“They’re delicious!” I exclaimed, as if I had tasted something entirely new that had just landed on the planet. An edible flying saucer . . . a magical tortilla on tour . . .
“I know, I know,” she laughed. “I’ve never had tortillas before with such a sweet flavor either.”
“How long did it take you to perfect them?” I asked.
Esperanza rolled her eyes at me, making a face in mock horror, and giggling.
“Oh, you don’t even want to know. They first came out brittle, and then like cardboard, so I kept on switching the mixture of flours, and then the kinds of oil ’til I got it right. . . . I mean, I think I got it right. I bet I have some more experimenting to do. . . . What do you think?”
“I think I need to pay you something for all your time and bring you some more mesquite flour.”
I didn’t tell her, but I felt like framing the first one in the pile and making it look like the gold records all the rock ’n’ roll stars used to get for their million sellers. But the very next morning, having shared the others with friends who were equally impressed, I ate it instead.
I bought Esperanza’s tortillas off and on for nine months more before I had to move away from the neighborhood we shared. Over that time, her tortillas somehow became even better, but so did her business skills. When I told her that mesquite was one of the healthiest foods that folks suffering from diabetes could eat, she worked up her nerve and took a batch to the health food store closest to La Abra valley. The proprietors tasted one and immediately agreed to stock them in the store.
Whenever we rendezvoused, she asked me questions about the unique features of mesquite, about where the best farmers markets might be located, and about how to describe the tortillas to the uninitiated. After the 9/11 disaster sent the economy into a tailspin, Esperanza lost her day job at an emergency lighting company. Her father, Javier, encouraged her not to look for another job but to go it on her own, to show the world she could be self-sufficient. She bit the bullet, sometimes working sixteen hours a day to stretch tortillas and expand their markets. Soon she was having success selling her mesquite tortillas at far more venues than I could even recall.
About that time, I disappeared for a few years from Tucson. I stayed involved in promoting mesquite, though, working with the Seri Indian community to develop a char-grilled mesquite flour project that sent its products to other parts of Mexico, across the United States, and even to Italy.
It didn’t start with that scale of distribution in mind. At the beginning, there were just two dozen hungry Seri families waiting for us at our cabin in Desemboque, on the Sea of Cortés, when we awakened each June morning. They wanted rides out across the desert to harvest some mesquite, to grind its pods into flour, to eat some of it and exchange the rest for cash. We would ride Old Paint out to sandy washes and look for the biggest mesquite trees we could find. There, we would harvest pods beneath feathery canopies of leaves supported by thick, dark-barked trunks. Over centuries, the roots of these ancient mesquites had drilled down hundreds of feet into the ground, bringing up a host of subterranean nutrients and flavors for us to share.
As we harvested their sweet and flavorful pods, we realized that mesquites fed, sheltered, and protected others as well. These trees served as nurse plants—nodrizas or madrinas—protecting dozens of kinds of cacti and shrubs beneath their canopies. We saw trees with blankets of wildflowers blooming beneath their skirts. Trees where white-winged doves, thrashers, and cactus wrens huddled together, where tree lizards climbed the trunks to hide beneath the bark from the noonday sun. Trees where rattlesnakes and desert tortoises dug in the moist sand below the trunk to survive the heat of the day. Trees around which pack rats built their nests and filled their storage cavities with pods to eat during the drier winter season. Trees that nourished and sustained us all in a sometimes inhospitable world.
When it got too damned hot for even the hardiest of the Seri to pick more pods, we would drive back to the fishing village, swim in the ocean, then linger in the shade of a few old salt cedar trees. Once rested, we would sort the pods, toast them in a chile roaster, grind them in a hammer mill, and sift the flour through screens and colanders until it was free of all its debris. We’d weigh the flour in plastic bags, slap on a label, pay the harvesters, and then send batches off to places like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. At the same time, we’d encourage the Seri families to sequester the rest of the flour for their own family use during the coming seasons. My wife, Laurie, and I would take ten pounds or so home to last us for the year, but I soon conceded that what we did with it never tasted as good as Esperanza’s tortillas.
I couldn’t figure it out. Was the added flavor in the terroir of the mesquite she now used, the mix of flours and oils, or her hands? Those hands. Hands that made little circular miracles out of a food as old as any in the desert.
One night about then, an ancient tree came to me in a dream, a vision, a hallucination—whatever you choose to call it. The tree was talking to me. It had lips on its trunk that moved just as surely as yours or mine move.
“Look down and see that I am still rooted,” the tree said.
I could see down, down, below the ground. I could see how the tree was anchored firmly in the earth, unwilling to give up its space to clearings, homes, or fields. Other trees, I saw, had already fled, tired of the constant invasion of their lands. But this tree had held its ground. When I looked deeper, what held it in the ground was not roots as I have seen them elsewhere, but hands spreading their fingers into the earth. A woman’s hands reaching down into the dough of the world. Esperanza’s hands?
After I had come out of the dream, I realized that the magic in the tortillas had something to do with being firmly rooted in this earth.
Then one Sunday I was back in Tucson with a dozen Seri women who wanted to sell their baskets, mesquite flour, and wild oregano at the local farmers market at Saint Philip’s Plaza. I had heard that Esperanza sometimes appeared there but often sold out of all her products within an hour and drove back home to be with her ailing father. I looked for her among the vendors, asking if they knew where she might be, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I finally gave up trying to find her. I had begun to help the Seri women break down their tables when someone came up and hugged me just as I stood up with a basket of mesquite flour in my hands. I turned to look.
“Gary! It’s Esperanza! It’s working! I’m making a living off mesquite tortillas! I’m up to three hundred dozen a week!”
I listened on, amazed. Her business had grown to include two other farmers markets, several health food stores, a diabetes clinic, special orders from local customers, and even shipping some to diabetics out of state!
“I myself can’t believe it. All the demand. People here really want mesquite tortillas!”
She hugged me again.
On my back and arms, I felt those hands. The ones that not only make magical tortillas but keep mesquite trees in their place, so that they can reach hundreds of feet down into the ground and bring back up to us flavors that we never before imagined.
Excerpt from Desert Terroir by Gary Paul Nabhan, Copyright 2012. Illustration by Paul Mirocha. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.