If you can't stand the heat -- get in the kitchen. On Thursday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at the Lounge at Crescent Ballroom, Chow Bella writers are warming up for summer with "Fried," an evening of true stories. Admission is free; food and drink will be available for sale.
Today: Elizabeth Maria Naranjo's October Dreams
To me, summer begins the June night I wake to slide my window open for a few hours of cool air and find there is no more cool air. Not at midnight, not at dawn. Not until October. That's about the time I go on a cooking strike. I am sweaty and crabby, and I just can't bring myself to bake lasagna. My kids can survive for a few months on yogurt pops and sliced turkey. If my husband wants a burger, he can fire up the grill. And me? I need to eat more salad anyway.
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Last summer during my exile from the stove, I was molded to the couch watching a Diamondbacks game, in as little clothing as possible, when my husband came home from work carrying fistfuls of grocery bags. "Did we run out of cheese sticks?" I asked. "Not that I know of. Nice outfit, by the way." He grinned and headed for the kitchen. Curious, I peeled myself off the couch and followed him, watching him swing the bags onto the counter. His face was bright with anticipation - or maybe it was just sweat. While he washed his hands, I peeked inside the bags.
Uh-oh. A jumbo sack of flour and a tub of lard.
"I was thinking," my husband said as he dried his hands and gave me a quick kiss, "that I should be using good old-fashioned pork fat instead of butter. That's the key."
Alex has been trying to make the perfect tortilla for years. Every few months, he comes up with a new theory of why this fails, and then he tries again. It's not like the man can't cook. He ran a popular Mexican restaurant for two decades. His posole is to die for. But the recipe for flawless homemade tortillas - the way his mother used to make them - eludes him. It torments him. It's the reason he apparently can get excited at the prospect of lingering over a hot stove in his work clothes in the middle of the day when it's 110 degrees out.
"Seriously?" I asked him. "Are you frying those up now? Come watch the game with me. Have some lemonade." But he'd already whipped out the rolling pin. There was no stopping him. "I'm not frying anything," he explained. "I'm making soft tortillas."
"You're coating them in lard, right?"
He didn't answer me; he was in his own world. I watched him dust the counter and ready his workspace. Into a large bowl, he shook flour straight from the bag because real cooks don't use measuring cups. He scooped out a hunk of lard and added it to the flour. Then he placed the bowl in the sink and ran a thin stream of water. As he began kneading the dough, I had to wonder at this obsession of his. Alex is not a sentimental man, but he seems intent on recapturing this one piece of his childhood, when a mother dutifully cooked up soft flaky tortillas, smothered in butter, for her husband and five sons. Every day. Before air conditioning. I started to slink away, feeling a bit pathetic, but Alex looked up with a fervent smile. He'd shaped his masterpiece into a glistening dome and tossed a kitchen towel over the bowl.
"These are going to be perfect," he promised. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."
"And the last time? I kneaded that batch too long. Overworked the dough."
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"Okay." After a while, I added, "So maybe if you wrote down what you did different . . ."
"No, no, it's all up here." He tapped his head and then lifted the towel from the bowl, where the dough had puffed up nicely. He pulled off a small piece, rolled it in his palms, then set it gently aside. I kept him company while he continued to work, smoothing the little globes into thin precise circles, but when he flipped on the burner, I returned to my baseball game.
I said a quick blessing in remembrance of his mother and crossed my fingers that his quest for the perfect tortilla would be fulfilled, although I believe what's wrapped in my husband's memory can't be found in a recipe. Still, as the warm smell of dough wafted through our home, I was glad he kept trying. I closed my eyes and pictured his mother working her griddle in the dead of summer, dreaming of October.