FLIPPING THE TORTILLA
by Anita Haas
“You have lived here in Madrid for twelve years?“ Cheryl eyed Peggy, challenge in her tone. “And married to a Spaniard? You must be an expert on the culture by now.”
“Well …” Peggy’s cheeks started to burn.
“Can you cook Spanish food? Spaniards are so proud of their cuisine!”
Elaine interrupted them, “Peggy makes a killer tortilla de patatas, the famous Spanish omelette.”
Peggy turned to Elaine, “No. That was …” she was going to say “my mother-in-law’s”, but Elaine winked, and raised her voice, “The best tortilla I’ve ever tasted! Even better than …”
Cheryl cut her off, “Bet mine’s better.”
Peggy and Elaine caught Cheryl’s smug grin. What was up with her? Why always so competitive? Cheryl boasted about the gifts her students showered her with, their raving feedback on her classes and the high grades she had gotten in university. She moved her tall, slim body like a dancer, and glossy, dark locks framed a face that tricked you into believing you were looking at the cover of Vogue magazine. Listening to her and looking at her always left Peggy feeling like a loser.
“That’s settled then.” announced their boss, Adam, in his business-like voice from the other side of the cramped teacher’s room. “Peggy and Cheryl bring the tortillas, Elaine and Cecil bring scones or Yorkshire pudding.” He deliberately mispronounced scones, “Jackie, bring something Irish. Potatoes. Virginia, you can bring poutine!” He waved his hand around in a circle, “Everybody bring something typical from your country, and I’ll supply the Thanksgiving turkey and fixings. Ok, back to work, or as the Spanish say, Manos a la obra. Hands on the job!”
That night Peggy was telling César about her boss’s plans for the upcoming dinner. “Somehow, Cheryl and I got roped into bringing Spanish food. Probably because we’re the only ones married to Spaniards.”
César’s eyes glittered as he pictured the plethora of palate pleasers his country had to offer, ”You could take lomo, morcón … remember the first time you tried morcón?”
“Cariño! Remember, there are a lot of vegetarians …”
“Oh right. Imbéciles.” He shook his head.
“And Cecil is a vegan.”
“Oh, pobrecito. I’ve heard of that … something like a diabetic, right?”
Peggy sighed. She had explained that one time too many.
“These people … they just have to open their minds. If these vegetarians just tried some good jamon de jabugo, they would give up vegetables forever!”
Peggy smiled. They knew a few Spanish vegetarians who treated ham as an honorary vegetable. “Vegetarian, but not stupid.” they said.
“These ones are different. Thery are foreigners, guiris. Don’t you remember my hen party?”
“Oh.” César’s shoulders slumped as the memory struggled to form itself in his mind.
But Peggy remembered. She had been drowning in work, so César had gallantly offered to do the shopping, and then disappear with his best friend Antonio. ”Oh thank you, cariño, but remember… we are a group of guiri ladies. We like our vegetables.”
“Si. Si. Don’t worry. Leave it to me.”
When she arrived that evening after work, she saw the dining room table pushed against the wall. Wax paper packages waited neatly on china plates. Cured aromas tickled her nostrils as she peeked into each one in an escalating search for green. Just enough time remained to toss a few salads and slice some broccoli and cauliflower for dipping. But the packages only contained several varieties of prepared pig; chorizo fromPamplona, butifarra from Catalonia, jamón de bellota, lomo, morcón, and salchichón. Behind them she discovered some cecina, cured horse meat from León, and several fragrant cheeses ranging from tingly cabrales from Asturias, tangy manchego from Castilla, and casar, the stnky-feet cheese from Extremadura, along with several long crunchy sticks of bread. He had spent a fortune!
“César!” Peggy panicked as she spotted him grab his jacket and head for the door. He smiled proudly, trying out a new American expression he had recently picked up, “Not a bad spread, eh?”
“Where are the vegetables?”
“Oh that,” he shrugged on his jacket, “There wasn’t time. They were closed when I got there, but don’t worry, there is so much more better stuff for them to eat.”
I told you! I told you! She fumed to herself, but it wasn’t worth an argument. Let’s just hope the ladies aren’t very hungry. She found a can of olives and a jar of asparagus in the back of the kitchen cupboard, then scraped and sliced a lonely dried up carrot into eight strips. That would have to do.
Two hours later, Peggy was laughing and sipping wine with her female friends and colleagues, all teachers at her language school. The bowl of olives was empty, the plates of asparagus and carrot picked clean, and not a crumb of bread remained, but a dozen plates, like open hands, held the sweating delicacies her future husband had provided.
“Okay, okay. You have repeated that story a hundred times.”
“Then, remember it!”
“There are more then just cold meats in Spanish cuisine. There is fish, shellfish, shrimp, prawns, mussels, …”
“Yes dear,” she changed her tone, and hugged him before he worked himself into a food fit. ”I love them all. But this time it has to be tortilla.”
“Well, that’s easy then. We’ll get mamá to make it for you. She would be more than happy to.”
Peggy pulled back, shocked, “We can’t do that! It would be dishonest. I have to make the tortilla myself.”
Cesar was bored with his wife’s hypocritical and impractical American sense of honor. As far as he was concerned honest people were not to be trusted. Let them die of food poisoning then. “Como quieras.”
Thanksgiving Thursday loomed seven short days away. Tortilla-making lessons were desperately in order. Doña Pili, Peggy’s mother-in-law, obligingly donated her next Saturday morning to the cause.
Unlike other women she knew, Peggy had no gripe with her suegra (other than an inability to pronounce her name correctly, and a disconcerting habit of finishing her sentences for her). Cheryl fretted in the teacher’s room all day about how her husband, Jesús, was enslaved by his mother. Not only did they have to have lunch at her house every weekend, but he took her shopping, to visit relatives, and to every doctor’s appointment. And he never complained. The typical Spanish mama’s boy.
“I’m sure she does it on purpose!” Cheryl grumbled one morning at the photocopier, “Invents aches and pains just so she can take him away from me, just like her sister did with Jesus’s cousin. And the Christmas holidays are just around the corner! Imagine, we’ll have to spend every day with her!”
“Mmmm.” Peggy made an effort at sounding sympathetic, “Is she a good cook, at least?”
Cheryl’s face brightened, ”Oh, yes! Her cocido is considered second best in her pueblo, and she makes an amazing tortilla. Doesn’t let me near the kitchen. That’s one of the problems I have with Jesús. He says I can’t cook.”
Peggy recalled that conversation on Saturday in Doña Pili’s kitchen, as the older lady gently coaxed her daughter-in-law along in the mysteries of the local cuisine.
“Es muy fácil! So easy. Now, remember, Peki. Never use patatas gallegas. They are too watery. Good for stews, but you want potatoes for frying. Peel them, and slice them thinly, but not too thin. Also, is best if you use gas stove.” She watched the younger woman nod, pity swelling in her heart. This americanita tried hard, but she was never going to master the art of tortilla-making.
“Then you take two eggs, good ones from the farm, not from those poor caged creatures …”
“And the onions? Are they sliced thick or thin?” Peggy peeped.
“No self-respecting tortilla de patatas has onions! Some people use them to make the tortilla juicy, but if you do it right, it won’t be dry.”
The potato slices and a pinch of salt joined the beaten eggs and were left to sit. Olive oil was heated, and when it started to crackle, the mixture was spooned into the pan. The next part, knowing when it was solid enough for flipping, was tricky. As the tortilla cooked, the comforting smells of egg and potato played in Peggy’s memory, scooping up images of her earliest discoveries in this fascinating country. They seduced her back to a summer terrace in Córdoba, flamenco guitar, orange blossoms, red wine, gazpacho andaluz and her first tortilla.
“Okay,” Doña Pili announced, “Time to flip! Ves?” she showed her daughter-in-law, “See? It is solid enough now.”
“Si.” Peggy lied. The tiny lady reached for a dinner plate with a frail left hand, and with the right agilely slid the round mass onto it. Then flip, the pan was over the plate, and flip, the plate was over the pan, and the tortilla rested placidly in it while firming up its back side.
“See? Facil. Now, your turn.” Doña Pili went off to fold laundry so Peggy could work on her tortilla alone. Peggy followed the steps one by one, but despite her diligence she miscalculated, and when it came time to flip the tortilla, an eggy mess slithered onto the plate.
She presented her creation to César and her father-in-law, Don Eustaquio. (This antiquated use of the titles don and doña were an affectionate joke César and his siblings had started in adolescence.) The two men tried to be encouraging.
“Hombre, not bad for a first try.”
“No, no. Shows promise. Just not very hungry today.”
And they both reached for their glasses of tinto con gaseosa and another helping of salad, an action of particular eloquence, as Peggy knew that if this father and son saw eye to eye on anything, it was on their loathing of vegetables.
“Don’t worry, Peggy. You were just nervous with my parents there. You’ll see. Tomorrow you’ll make a fantastic tortilla at home.”
But Sunday’s tortilla was runny and crunchy with eggshell. Monday’s tortilla was so salty they had to get up to drink water all night. The potatoes in Tuesday’s tortilla were sliced too thick and wouldn’t cook through without burning the eggs. Their stomachs churned a lot that night.
Only two days remained until Thanksgiving.
César, always positive, was starting to sense his patience slip. “Mira, que eres cabezota! How stubborn you are! Just let Doña Pili make a tortilla for you. Tell your friends you made it. Who cares?”
Despite her sense of honor, Peggy had to admit he was right. She was reminded of the time when he had finally convinced her that she didn’t always have to tell her mother the whole truth. “Every week your mother calls to check if you have bought long underwear. Every week you suffer having to tell her not yet. Next time, tell her yes, mamá, and that’s it!” Peggy gave it a try, grateful that her face could not be seen, voilá, her mother never asked about the long johns again. However, thrilled with her daughter’s obedience, she found many other objects to replace the long johns with in her repertoire of commands. Get a new haircut, get a new bed, get a new job. “Yes, Mom! Yes, Mom!” Peggy trilled call after call. She soon lost track of the fibs.
“Well, there is one more day. I could try again …” she peered at César, fearing his answer.
He shook his head, and ruffled her hair, “Give up. We all have our limits. I won’t love you any less. But, cariño, you will make me hate tortilla!”
“But Cheryl …”
“Cheryl’s tortilla won’t stand up to Doña Pili’s in a million years.”
It was Thursday evening. They had said good night and happy thanksgiving to the last of the students in the “I Love English” Academy, each gingerly carrying home a complimentary piece of pumpkin pie.
The teachers had overheard some of them laugh while smoking outside. “How can los americanos eat sweet vegetables for dessert? Disgusting!” But Adam insisted, “They just need to open their minds.”
Adam enlisted his dozen employees to maneuver tables and chairs around in a classroom to accommodate the dinner party.
Peggy cradled a tin foil plate with Doña Pili’s tortilla, warm as a baby, in her arms. Elaine, eyeing it, approached and hissed in her ear, “I hope you didn’t make that yourself.”
Peggy peered back at her guiltily. Was this a trick?
“Because I happen to know that Cheryl did not make hers.”
Peggy gasped, “Are you sure?”
Elaine crossed her arms over her ample chest and nodded, “Told me herself. La suegra.”
Peggy’s forehead furled and her lips puckered. She was pretty certain Cheryl’s tortilla was no match for her suegra’s, but she didn’t know about Cheryl’s suegra’s tortilla!
Within ten minutes they were all standing around the festive table, respectfully listening to Adam drone on about Thanksgiving, gratitude, the trials and tribulations of the past year, and his hopes and plans for the next one. He concluded by saying “As the Spanish say, you have to break some eggs if you want to make tortilla.” Obedient chuckles followed, “And on that note, might I suggest we start the evening with a glass of wine and a piece of that delicious dish, compliments of our two most integrated españolas, Peggy and Cheryl!”
Peggy’s stomach pinched as her colleagues descended upon the omelettes. Cheryl was pontificating to the newer, younger teachers about just how a tortilla was made and what sensations it should arouse. “And onions! There should definitely be no onions!” Peggy watched Cheryl nibble at a dainty sqaure of her own tortilla. Suddenly, her face distrorted. She caught herself in time, but Peggy had seen it. Then she turned to observe the others. Those who had taken Cheryl’s squinted at their little squares, turning them over this way and that.
“Didn’t you say there shouldn’t be onions?” asked Colin, perplexed.
Then, Chloe, genuinely intrigued, added, “Is that vinegar I taste? How original! Too bad I had such a big lunch.”
Peggy turned to spy on those indulging in Doña Pili’s tortilla. Each one hunched their shoulders and turned slightly away from the rest of the group, enjoying a private moment with their tortillas, their faces betraying a bliss that was almost indecent.
To no one’s great surprise, Cheryl’s marriage didn’t last much longer. By New Year’s Eve Jesús had moved back home with a triumphant mamá, Cheryl was planning a new life in L.A., and Peggy and César were toasting Doña Pili with glasses of rosé wine from Navarra over one of that fine señora’s tasty tortillas.
About the Author:
I am a differently-abled Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. I have published books on film, two novelettes, a short story anthology, and articles, poems and fiction in both English and Spanish. I spend my free time enjoying tapas and flamenco with my writer husband and two cats.