Who would have thought that an ancient tool from my late mother's kitchen would come to signify a Christmas season rapprochement for my brothers and sisters. But that's what my mother's "comal" has done.
A comal is a heavy-duty griddle for making tortillas on the stove top. This particular comal, which came into my hands quite some time after my mother died, is special. My mother used it to make tortillas from 1927, when she came to this country from Mexico, until she died in 1996. She occasionally made corn tortillas on it, but as we are a family with roots in the northern states of the republic where flour trumps corn, we were raised primarily on flour tortillas.
As busy adults, my eight siblings and I would only bump into each other at my mother's house. We pulled together around her sickbed in the last, difficult month of her life, but my brothers and sisters more or less went their separate ways after my mother died. Long-simmer- ing quarrels that had been quieted around my mother's sickbed re-erupted. And so it went until the spirit of the familia represented by the comal resurfaced.
When she was young, my mother was a professional tortilla maker. A job making tortillas at a boarding house took her to the U.S. from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. In a way, if it weren't for that comal, I wouldn't have been born in this country many years later in the 1950s.
A distant aunt of my mother ran that boarding house in the copper-mining town of Morenci, Ariz., and she arranged for my mother to get a U.S. work visa. My mother did basic cooking and cleaning, but her specialty was making tortillas. Back then, she placed that comal on a wood-fired stove. She would tell me that she made "una montana de tortillas cada dia" for breakfast, lunch and dinner for hungry miners.
One of those miners eventually became her husband. They had nine kids. I was the end of the line.
Over the years, that comal traveled with my mother from the mining towns of Arizona to Texas shanty towns to migrant camps outside San Jose, Calif., where my family eked out a living picking everything from asparagus to zucchini. That comal eventually traveled to Los Angeles, where I was born.
I remember cold mornings when the first thing I saw was my mother making a stack of tortillas in the yellow light of the tiny kitchen, the only warm place in our matchbox-size house in Lincoln Heights. And what a wonderful smell! For a little kid, there wasn't much that was better than a warm tortilla, fresh off the comal on a chilly morning.
This will be the 11th Christmas without my mother. A few years after she died, I decided to have a dinner party for my brothers and sisters during the Christmas season to bring us all together again. When my mom's comal fell into my hands a year or so later, putting it back to work cemented the tradition and more. In its way, it brought my mother back to the table.
The comal is a big, black steel disk about a foot in diameter. Remember lying in bed as a kid, looking up at the cracks in the ceiling and imagining all sorts of shapes and figures? That's what the craggy surface of the comal reminds me of. Those tiny nooks and crannies leave toasty imprints on the tortillas you make on it. No, I haven't seen the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on a tortilla. But sometimes I think I see just a hint of an image of my mother in the lines of the comal and the tortillas I make on it.
My mother made absolutely perfect tortillas in the gastronomic and the geometric senses. Each tortilla was perfectly round, every one the same size. Golden and slightly crisp around the edge. Heaven.
The tortillas I make wouldn't meet my mother's standards. They taste OK, but instead of being perfectly round, they tend to be in the shape of some of the 48 contiguous states. Some look like Kansas, others might remind you of Nevada.I'm still practicing. My hope is that by next Christmas, I'll be able to make a tortilla that approximates a circle, almost as perfect as my mom's.
Luis Torres is a Los Angeles writer.