The Wall Street Journal • March 1, 2012
A few years ago, working an undercover stint for “The American Way of Eating,” I had the best soup of my life. I had just taken a room—a cubby, really— with farmworkers in California’s Salinas Valley, paying $300 for the next seven weeks, using it as a homebase from which to find field work. As soon as I agreed to take the room, my landlady led me into the kitchen and set a steaming bowl of soup, scarlet and speckled with golden globules of fat, before me. Chunks of fish, fleshy and white, floated in the bowl alongside translucent onion snippets and scraps of herbs. Eat! she commanded in Spanish, handing me half a lime and a salt shaker. Then she pointed to a stack of fresh flour tortillas. Eat!
Most nights, I ate with the family, and I looked forward to the home-cooked Mexican meals from the time I woke up (4:30 a.m.) until the dinner hour (6:00 p.m.). We shared stews of chicken and purslane, and edible weed families snatched from fields and roadsides. If we ran out of meat, it was rice and beans. Whatever it was, dinner always put the Mexican food I’d eaten at restaurants to shame. I soon learned that it wasn’t my landlady making the dinners, but Inez, her daughter.
Inez was fourteen. It was July and she had made the desert crossing in February; her parents had decided she was strong enough to make the trip north. Like her family, Inez’s first language was Trique, an indigenous language from the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, where she was born. She knew some Spanish, from her schooling in Mexico, but not a syllable of English. Every morning, she rose at 4:00 to prepare breakfast and pack lunches for her parents and older brother, who worked in the fields. She cleaned house and watched her siblings all day, cleaning house, refereeing squabbles and watching telenovelas in short bursts. By midafternoon she began cooking again.
Like most of the other Triquis I met, Inez’s family ate a mashup of homecooked and processed food. Frozen chimichangas were pan-fried, packed into lunchboxes, and dressed with tangy homemade salsas verde and roja. Hankerings for complicated mole sauces were sated by store-bought sauces enhanced with pan-toasted spices. Families stocked kitchens with staples like rice, beans, and oatmeal from food pantries; filled produce drawers with overflow from the fields in which they worked; visited supermarkets for frozen and processed food, but headed to smaller markets for meat, which was often butchered on the premises. In every kitchen sat the same 25-pound paper sack, not unlike those used to pack concrete mix, of masa harina, the mix for tortillas.
Inez’s tortillas were unlike any I’d eaten before. The size of dinner plates, the tortillas were crisp at the edges but soft, almost doughy, in the center. We’d use them to soak up the broth from stews or scoop up beans; torn into scraps, they were a post-dinner snack. We always ate them the day they were made; preservative-free, they’d go stale overnight.
It took Inez an hour to make the several dozen required for dinner, and one day, I asked if she would show me how to make them. She mixed the masa with water and explained, in Spanish little better than mine, the basics while the dough rested. Take a golf-ball sized hunk of dough, splat it onto a round of plastic, roll it into a thin round, peel it off the round, and flip it onto the smoking comal—griddle—heating on the stove.
It was slow going for me, of course. When I furrowed my brow in frustration, Inez wordlessly took the rolling pin from my hand and demonstrated how, by rotating the dough a quarter-turn after each pass, I could get a circle. As we worked, I asked Inez if she was excited about going to school; she shrugged. She wasn’t going to school. I persisted: Sure she would. Didn’t she want to go? Work on her English? Of course, she said. But she had to stay home and work, so her parents could spend their days in the field. The tortillas weren’t going to make themselves.
This essay is adapted from Tracie McMillan’s new book, “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.” She is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.