There is a new corn tortilla factory in town, in the San Pablo area, and I am going to write about it not because it is a convenient store in my area, but because it reminds me of baking tortillas 25 years ago. It is mostly done by hand.
The first thing involved in this process is boiling the corn until it is tender enough to be grounded for the dough. A hand mill is used and this is a long and tedious process. Water is added to the ground corn to make the dough of the right texture and consistency.
Next you form small balls of dough about an inch and a half in diameter. This piece of dough is placed on a piece of cellophane or plastic or wax paper and you flatten it very thin and round like, you know, a tortilla. The thinner the tortilla, the better the product and this could be a difficult process by hand.
Then you remove the flat dough from the cellophane and you place it on a hot place called a “comal”. A comal could be the bottom or top of a metal drum. Mennonites make comales of all sizes today. The tortilla is then baked on the comal for at least a minute. While baking it, it will fluff up and swell. Don’t panic. It is not a bomb and it will not explode.
Now this is the process to make one tortilla. Your hot plate can take as many as you can flatten or at the speed you do so. The lady at the new factory said she filled up two coolers by mid morning, so you can imagine the long process and the great speed these ladies have. Well, pass by and see their dexterity at flattening them and baking them. By the way a cooler is supposed to keep things cool, but in this case they keep the tortillas hot and warm.
Twenty five years ago we used to use a “lek”, which was the carved out shell of a pumpkin with a circular opening at the top. Every family had two or three “leks” 25 years ago because there were no coolers or nothing else that did the job so marvelously because a tortilla is only nice, or at its best, when it is fresh and hot.
Most families used to bake tortillas everyday 25 years ago. We used to get up a six in the morning and grind corn before going to school. Now if you wished, you could take your boiled corn to a certain lady and she would make your tortillas for a fee of ten cents for a quart of corn. She used to do so for about twenty families. At ten cents that would be two dollars a day. Great! That would be equivalent to about sixty dollars earned today.
You know people used to boast how fast they could convert one quart of corn into tortillas. Some said they could do so in 30 minutes. That is ten minutes to grind, ten to make the dough, and ten to bake the tortillas. So that is ten cents per 30 minutes or about one dollar and sixty cents for an 8-hour working day. Men used to make two dollars chopping a coconut plantation or husking coconuts, so that was not bad for a housewife’s earning power in the 1950’s.
With two dollars you could eat for a week with flour at four cents, beans at ten cents, milk at ten cents, sugar at four cents, salt at two cents, fish at 3 for five cents, and pig tail at ten cents, and a pound of manatee (beef) at ten cents. Hey, the extra income could go to the bank for a savings, I mean buried some place for a savings. Don’t laugh. A ladies purse back then used to be her brazier.