The traditions that feed us
Makayla Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo
Although Angela Mendoza of Meadow Lake doesn’t make homemade tortillas as often as she used to, she still tries to make time in the winter to warm up the house and enjoy them with green chile stew, or even simply with butter.
For some, the smell of bacon in the morning transports them back to childhood nostalgia, and for many New Mexicans it’s the rhythmic clacking sound of a round rolling pin hitting the countertop while their mother or grandmother rolls out tortillas, ready to cook on a hot comal.
“If there are people around when you’re making tortillas, you have to make sure you’re smacking everybody’s hands because they all come in,” said Angela Mendoza, of Meadow Lake, with a laugh. “You have to keep everybody out of the kitchen because otherwise you’re making tortillas and you only end up with like three.”
Much like other New Mexicans, Mendoza grew up with both her mother and her grandmother making the staple side-dish, measuring out the flour and other ingredients using only their hands while the hot stove warms the house on a cool morning.
“The older they are, they use hands — this hand, this hand, that hand — and everyone’s hands are different sizes,” Mendoza remembers when she was first trying to replicate their recipe. “It took me a while, and I was like ‘How am I supposed to make tortillas?’ They say, ‘I don’t know, about this much, about that much.’”
After trial and error, measuring then remeasuring, Mendoza perfected her own recipe. When she makes tortillas now, she can have a dozen ready in about 15 minutes. Mendoza even began selling her tortillas by the dozen — the traditional recipe along with green and red chile versions of her own creation.
“I named my tortillas after my mother, because of tradition, because that’s who I learned it from — Rosie’s New Mexican Tortillas,” she said. “That’s how come my product is what it is, because of my mother.”
Although she no longer has time to make fresh tortillas for her family on a regular basis, she tries to create time to make some during winter, to pair with a green chile stew and to allow the hot stove top to heat the house. Still, she said her favorite way to enjoy them is just with a small bit of melted butter.
“With butter, or after you get your sack of chile roasted, you get a homemade tortilla with a roasted chile on there,” Mendoza said. “That’s life, man. This is what it’s all about. That’s totally New Mexican.”
It’s not just about eating the food as a family, but about making it together. Mendoza would make tortillas with her own mother and grandmother, and has memories of giving her own niece a small rolling pin to shape her own tortillas.
“That’s what home is. You can come and not be related to me, but food brings us all together,” Mendoza said. “It’s cool because you can sit and talk about whatever and, when you are making something, you’re able to open that door because it makes the other person comfortable — it makes you comfortable. You can just talk. I think that’s what the whole New Mexican tradition is.”
While tortillas remind of daily meals at home, Mendoza says sopapiallas are usually substituted for special occasions but serve a similar purpose in the meal — as a spoon of sorts for the dish.
Makayla Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo
Sopapiallas have been a mainstay on the menu for Sopa’s Restaurant in Bosque Farms since opening in 2001. Owner Vanessa Gonzales says the recipe took quite a bit of trial and error to perfect.
“Sopaipillas should be soft and fluffy and round and you can put stuff inside of it,” she said. “But people do make them sweet and that’s cool. That’s how the sopaipillas, tortillas and all New Mexican food came together — it was people doing their own little twists here and there.”
At Sopa’s Restaurant in Bosque Farms, owner Vanessa Gonzales said customers will usually ask for sopaipillas as soon as their meal comes out so they can enjoy the fried favorite with their food.
“A lot of people here in New Mexico — because we are a meat and potato, beans and chile type — they kind of use the sopapialla as their spoon, just the way they do with a tortilla,” she said. “Then you get people who come from outside of New Mexico who haven’t even heard of a sopaipillas.”
Gonzales said their sopaipillas recipe came with a fair share of trial and error, although they started with her mom’s original recipe.
“When you are making a large quantity of masa or several pans of it, its a little different,” she said. “We’ve tried something, eliminated it, tried something else, eliminated it, and now we have it down.”
Sopa’s now ensures to have a light and fluffy recipe, complete with crunchy shell over the top. The restaurant gets sopaipilla orders daily — some people ordering dozens at a time to be ready in a matter of hours.
“It’s kind of amazing we are able to keep up with that demand because that is just something that we do all day long,” Gonzales said. “Hence the name— Sopa’s.”
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history.