Today, Susan studied at the apron of the Master.
After we finished early in the NPH clinic, she decided to offer assistance at the tortilla hut. Like most others – a building of brick and tile, located near the center of the Ranch – the tortilla hut stands out only by its adjacent, open-air, wood-fired, smoke-belching black cauldron…… and by its delicious and enticing fragrance.
Doña Gloria directs the daily orchestration of stoking the fire, boiling the thick, yellow maize, adding the lye, and stirring with her squat wooden baton until the kernels are softened to her exacting standard.
The second movement brings large amounts of the boiled concoction through a funnel/grinder apparatus, to produce the malleable, doughy masa, which finds itself formed into uniform, flat discs by the hand-cranked “tortillero”.
At the large, black stovetop, Doña Gloria performs her grand finale of cooking the tortillas to a spottily-browned, slightly crisp perfection. Her spatula effortlessly flips and rearranges the notes on her page, while towers of finished product rise to her right. Her accompanist shuttles the aromatic, freshly-made tortillas to a large, draped washbasin, used to transport the precious contents to the insulated termos, and then on to the hogars for lunch. Spectators are graced with samples that – with a pinch of salt in the smoky tortilla air – complete the experience of ecstasy.
While the floor of her chamber is swept, and the instruments are cleaned for another day’s performance, Doña Gloria sits and wipes her damp brow. With the face of someone much younger than her 69 years, her smile reveals a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. A stout and solid woman, her dimensions trend toward those of her perfectly-round works of art. Hands grown strong and tough through years of hard work smooth back feathery gray hair beneath a well-worn baseball cap. Work is finished until starting up again before tomorrow’s dawn.
Doña Gloria makes 2,000 tortillas daily for all those who live and work at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos. Conservatively estimating that one half million tortillas kiss her griddle every year, in her 50-year career, Doña Gloria would have produced enough tortillas that if placed end-to-end, would form a ribbon of corn around the circumference of Dallas, Texas……. 68 times.
If tomorrow morning, one is fortunate enough to be cutting across the Ranch, he should be prepared to experience a whiff of the work of a virtuoso.
*The Stavinohas have now temporarily returned to the US. Appearing in Neighbors Far Away will be essays from their previous visits to NPH Honduras.