Angie Gomez was born in 1919 on California's McDonald Island in the San Joaquin Delta west of Stockton. Her parents named her Maria de los Angelas (Maria of the Angels), or Angelena. They called her Angie for short. She would become My Tortilla Angel.
I had just turned 3 when my family moved to Watts Avenue in east Stockton, which is about 80 miles east of San Francisco. It was 1957. Not long after we arrived came the first sign of welcome, a basket of warm tortillas covered with a towel and carried over from the house across the street. This was our introduction to Angie. My twin brother, sister and I became close friends with her two daughters, traveling in a pack first to one house and then the other. At our house, snack time meant ice pops from the freezer. At Angie's, it meant warm tortillas and pinto beans. To this day, Angie delivers this taste of home, sending her tortillas across the country with my family when they come to visit. The tortillas arrive wrapped in aluminum foil and sealed in plastic, hand-carried so I don't have to wait for a suitcase to be unpacked. Within minutes of touchdown I'm chomping on a warm, chewy tortilla slathered in butter - and I'm back home again in Angie's kitchen.
Tortilla tallyAngie says she has made an average of two dozen tortillas daily since getting married in 1940. (Some days, it was more, such as the 10 dozen made for a friend's funeral.) By my estimate, that's at least 604,440 tortillas, enough placed side by side to stretch from north Tampa to Sarasota.How to make a tortillaOn a recent trip home, I spent an afternoon in the kitchen with Angie, learning the secrets of the tortillas she has made for more than 60 years. Here's her recipe: In a large bowl, mix together 7 cups of flour, 1 -1/2 tablespoons of baking soda and 1-1/2 tablespoons of salt. Slowly add room-temperature tap water until the mixture turns doughy, somewhat like dough for pie crust. Rub 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil between your palms and then knead the dough into a large ball shape. Cover with a dry towel to keep moist. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes. Divide the dough into 24 small balls. Place the balls in a bowl and cover with the towel to keep moist. Use your hands to flatten the balls to about an inch thick. Use a rolling pin to flatten dough into a thin circle. Immediately place on a hot iron skillet. Cook for about 1 minute on each side or until brown spots start to show. Keep tortillas warm by stacking them and covering with a towel.
The rolling pin
When Angie married Larry Gomez in 1940, a neighbor gave her a rolling pin made of California redwood. She has used it to roll tortillas ever since.
How to serve
A warm, fresh flour tortilla is perfect with butter and nothing else. Period. (But Angie always had a simmering pot of pinto beans on the stove at the ready as well.)
She keeps rolling
Angie is 90 now and in a constant stoop. She cannot raise her head, having injured her neck several years ago in a fall in her kitchen. She swivels her head slightly when she talks, looking up from under her eyebrows to make eye contact. Her right wrist is crooked, frozen in place after a bad break in the same fall. Time, it would seem, is telling her to slow down, let some things go.
But Angie has simply rearranged her kitchen, placing the mixing bowls and utensils within easy reach. She has friends and family to feed - and now a new mission: Her granddaughters want to learn the art of an angel.