by Maria Ruiz
My aunt and uncle lived in a small, two bedroom, one bathroom house built in the late 1940s for the returning soldiers and their families. They were to stay in that house until the day they died, sixty plus years later.
In the small kitchen, Clara had a grill in the middle between the four burners, the first one in the family to own such a luxury.
Every morning she would mix her secret ingredients in a bowl, add water and knead the mix. From that, she would form perfect little balls about the size of golf balls. She had a bread board stored on top of the row of drawers and she would pull it out, setting it on top of the sink and begin rolling the balls into perfect flat tortillas.
While she was rolling, the grill would heat. She would plop two tortillas on the hot grill, roll some more, turn the tortillas, roll and with hands that moved faster than a speeding bullet, pull the cooked tortillas off and replace with two more on the grill. The cooked ones would sit nestled in a tea towel type of envelope. Within minutes, she had a fresh stack of heavenly wonders to last the day.
As the years passed and I grew up, my visits decreased to one or two a year. The stack of tortillas was always in its towel envelope on the back burner of the stove.
I asked her to teach me how to make tortillas and she answered “It’s easy, flour, water and lard.”
“Yes, but how much of each?” I asked.
“Start with two cups of flour, a big scoop of lard and enough water so you can roll.” she answered.
That sounded easy and I was eager to try. I put the flour in, the lard, and a little water. I rolled the balls out and set them in a heated frying pan. They cooked. I flipped them over, tasting the delicious tortillas and butter in my mind as they finished.
I took my first one, buttered it and rolled it up, making sure I turned up one end so the hot butter wouldn’t run down my arms. I bit in. Almost breaking a tooth, I realized it didn’t taste like Aunt Clara’s.
Next time I visited I said “I tried making tortillas but they didn’t turn out like yours. Can I watch you make them tomorrow?”
“No. You’ll get better as you do it.”
“Why don’t you want me to watch?” I pleaded.
“It’s my secret,” she answered.
That was it. She had a secret ingredient that she wasn’t going to share.
I asked my mom if she knew what Clara’s secret ingredient was. She didn’t.
I asked my Aunt Ronnie if she knew. She didn’t.
I asked three other aunts and no one knew.
Years passed and I could never get my tortillas that light and fluffy. Store bought ones were okay but none of them matched Clara’s freshly cooked bits of heaven. Hers had a flavor that made them irresistible. Hers seemed to melt in the mouth, not chewy or tough, but strong enough to hold a filling.
It became a quest shared by all the aunts; find Clara’s secret. Since I had nine aunts I figured someone would find a way and share with all of us.
I didn’t know it but Aunt Cora and Aunt Annabel had a bet about who would be the first to crack the code.
Years passed and I had almost forgotten those tortillas, being busy raising children and going to the university. Every time I visited Santa Barbara, I would stop in at Clara’s house, head to the kitchen and pick a fresh tortilla from the stack.
Lathered with butter, smeared with freshly made guacamole, or filled with chili beans from the pot, the tortillas were still scrumptious and the secret still hidden from us mere mortals.
One day the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and heard “I know the secret ingredient.”
“Ronnie, is that you?” I asked.
“Yes and I know what Clara’s secret is,” she whispered.
“Well tell me. It must be funny.”
‘You aren’t going to believe this,” She laughed.
I was beside myself. “Tell me. How did you find out?” Ronnie was the last person I had thought to find out the secret. She was such a mousy little aunt and unable to keep a secret.
“Well, you know. I came down to Santa Barbara for a weekend and stayed at Clara’s, in the spare bedroom. I wanted to see her flowers in the backyard. I woke early and went outdoors and saw the kitchen light on. I sneaked over to look in the window. “It’s Bisquick. She uses Bisquick. She measured it and poured it into the bowl. She never poured flour in. So then I knew.”
It took a moment, and then I began to laugh. No wonder she never let us watch her assemble the ingredients.
She continued, “Now honey, we must keep this to ourselves. The other aunts are having too much fun trying to find out. We must not spoil their game.”
I laughed again. Who would have thought that little Ronnie could be so devious. To me, that secret was almost as great as Clara’s.
As the years passed and she entered her nineties, she stopped making her famous delights. Now she’s gone and I’ll never know all her other secret ways of making those little flat mouthfuls of pure delight because, in the end, my Bisquick tortillas never were as good as hers.