The Gift of the Tortilla

At writers’ group last week, I mentioned how hard it is to get back to work after breaking for lunch.  “Bring a snack in with you,” Monica said.  “Then you can keep going until two or three.”  She smiled:  “I eat a lot of nuts.”

That got me thinking.  Not so much about nuts, or how to stretch out the work day (which, incidentally, I’ve been successfully doing once a week since last month’s productive retreat), but about preferred writing snacks.  I don’t mean the sandwich or the heated-up risotto from last night’s dinner, but the snack, the treat, the bite or two that keeps us going.

I used to drive to Davis from San Francisco, across two bridges and over the hills into the flat Sacramento valley, and back again—a route that became stunningly, mind-achingly familiar.  I listened to a lot of NPR.  And I discovered tortillas.

Ever since I stood at my dad’s elbow while he kneaded bread, I’ve had a thing for dough.  Yes, dough.  Simple flour-and-water fed me in a basic way that not even chocolate does. Pies especiallythose crusts!are my favorite dessert. So, when I discovered Micaela’s flour tortillas, sold at a produce stand in Dixon, a few exits west of Davis, I got hooked by their dough-y consistency, their toothy heft.  I would buy a bag, rip into the plastic, tear off a piece to nibble on while driving.  Ever press homemade bread between your fingers?  Micaela’s tortillas are like that, and often still warm.

I kept packages in the freezer for when the craving hit.  And it often did while working, right in the middle of a tricky paragraph, say, or when a character just wouldn’t budge.  Monica’s right:  If I had my nuts at my side, I’d have had to stay put.  But instead, I’d get up and fetch a tortilla, heat it over a low flame, and eat it plain.  And that’s what I was doing one morning, looking out my window at Sutro tower, when I saw the Mexican restaurant of my home town, gone some forty years by now.  El Burro sat on Main Street, and Dad would park the station wagon in back, off Juanita Lane, so we always entered through the kitchen.  El Burro served up hot tortillas in red plastic baskets, but what stunned me that morning was a vision of the open back door.  Through it, in a kitchen now purely imagined, I saw happening in my mind’s eye, a scene.  Characters, action, dialogue, already underway, in medias res—the way characters and plot come to us when the writing’s going well.  But here’s the thing: I wasn’t writing.  I was chewing.

Fourteen-year-old Mollie lives in a farm town in central coastal California in the 1970s.  She’s clashing a lot with her mom, whose involvement in the United Farm Workers complicates Mollie’s standing with the cool kids, sons and daughters of the ranchers.  Rosa runs the Mexican restaurant that serves as local UFW headquarters.  On a winter night when the fog is thick and the back door open, Mollie will show up at the back door to hear the sound of wailing, to see Rosa drop the spoon she has been using to stir menudo and fall to her knees, to watch Rosa’s husband crouch beside his wife and press her dark head into his chest.

The vision came, intact, that morning as I chewed a flour tortilla.  It sits, still unwritten but there, in my mind.  What I’ll do with it, I don’t want to jinx by speculating.  I have a couple ideas.  Mollie narrated “Bees for Honey,” the first story I wrote as an adult and one of the stories collected in my first book. I know her world well, although I haven’t spent much time there lately.  First, I have to finish the novel I’m revising, the work that has nothing to do with Rosa or Mollie or the United Farm Workers.  But that kitchen scene sits in my mind like a deposit in the bank, an investment for down the line, and a reminder that, sometimes, taking a snack break pays off.  No match, of course, for the hard work of drafting and revision, for keeping your rear in the chair.  But every now and then, the right mixture of ingredients, bound and warmed and eaten while standing up, feeds us.

What writing snack has provided you with inspiration? Jogged your memory?  Indulged you?

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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2 Responses to The Gift of the Tortilla

  1. Callie Feyen says:

    When I was a senior in college, I went to the same carol to write in the library every day (a suggestion given to me by my dad, “Don’t write in your dorm. Work in a place that means work.”). I took a large bag of gummy worms. Not just any gummy worms, though. These can only be purchased at Meijer grocery stores in the bulk bins. I still know the pin number. I ate those and a “poor man’s mocha,” coffee mixed with hot chocolate from the cafeteria. I ate the gummies in threes, after my drink was gone. One afternoon I was stuck on an assignment having to do with tying together everything we had read that semester: Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Hemingway….I thought, “What if I pretended I was the valedictorian of my class and wrote a commencement speech?” So that’s what I did. And I got one of the very few “A’s” I’ve ever earned as a student. I credit the gummy worms.

  2. I love this, Callie. Not only your (brilliant) idea about writing your paper, but the fact you ate the gummi worms in three, a very significant number! I don’t know if worms are the same as bears or fish, in the gummy world, but I’m drooling just thinking of that wonderful dense chewiness…

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