In my last column, I was sitting in a little restaurant in Puerto Rico and had ordered a tortilla from the menu.
As I was waiting for my tortilla, I thought about the famous tortillas of Spain—omelets made with eggs and potatoes, almost like a potato cake. I was fairly certain that this was the dish that I was going to receive. You can imagine my surprise when the waiter placed before me—a plain egg omelet! No fancy sauces or fillings—just an omelet.
The word tortilla comes from the Latin torte, which means, more or less, a round cake. The words tart in English and torta in Spanish are also derived from torte. And in many Spanish-speaking countries a tortilla is an omelet but not necessarily so in Mexico. Americans usually associate the word strictly with Mexican corn or flour tortillas, a type of round, flat bread.
Years later when I was teaching Spanish in a Texas Junior High School, we had a lesson dealing with the culture of Ecuador. For some reason I was intrigued by the description of llapingachos—una tortilla hecha de papa y queso [a tortilla made of potatoes and cheese]. Silly me, I thought llapingachos might resemble breakfast tacos, Mexican style, but without the eggs. We were going to have guest speakers who had visited Ecuador and I wanted to serve the students Ecuadorian food. However, I wasn’t sure that the llapingachos resembled tacos and one day as I was browsing through the grocery store, I stumbled upon cheese and potato pierogis, a Polish food, I think. But, I reasoned, my students wouldn’t know the difference so I bought several boxes. On the day of the presentation I boiled then deep-fried the pierogis and called them “llapingachos.” I bought some fresh coconut and tropical fruit drinks, some banana chips and my students had a great time. I doubted if any of these items remotely resembled anything Ecuadorian. My guest speakers said nothing of my improvisations as they conducted a question and answer session with my students.
[Although this has nothing to do with the topic at hand, the most pertinent question that day was “Do toilets flush backwards in Ecuador as you cross the equator?” Apparently a character on a popular American television show had said something to that effect. American students, always in a quest for higher learning, were most intrigued by that possibility. The response was “No.”]
A month or so later after serving my fake llapingachos to my students, I finally acquired Internet access and began to inquire what llapingachos really were. Since the original description said they were tortillas de papa y queso I realized that I should have known that they would be made of eggs, potatoes, and cheese. I received many recipes for llapingachos and the most delicious also included onion and achiote—en otras palabras, una tortilla muy sabrosa, a most delicious tortilla.
A few years ago a friend and I traveled to Spain and Portugal. My friend had taken a Spanish course years earlier but struggled with the language. “Have no fear,” I told her. “I’ll be the translator.”
After arriving in Madrid and enduring a rather hectic taxi drive , we found ourselves ensconced in a small hotel across from the Plaza Mayor. As we set out to explore the Plaza our first mission was to find a good but inexpensive place to eat. I was looking forward to sampling Spanish food and especially tortillas. We glanced in several places and I was puzzled by what appeared to be menus written on many of the walls. Each “menu” was headed by the word “Tapas.” I had no idea what a tapa was nor did I understand anything on the “menu” except tortilla.
Thus began a three-month adventure on how not to order food in Spain and Portugal.
To be continued . . .next year. Next week I pay tribue to two friends who have died and left a legacy of writing and storytelling.