Esperanza, Mesquite Flour and the Magical Homemade Tortillas

Esperanza’s fragrant homemade tortillas, made with healthy mesquite flour, leave a lasting impression.

| April 19, 2012

  • Desert-Terroir-Cover
    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.
  • Desert-Terroir-Illustration
    "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."

  • Desert-Terroir-Cover
  • Desert-Terroir-Illustration

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.

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