In the great tortilla of life, always use your fingers

Louise lifted a white round of dough off the counter and plopped it in the cast iron skillet. Bubbles rose like mini-volcanoes, one here, another there. In less than a minute she reached in and flipped the tortilla – with her bare fingers.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked.

Louise blew a strand of brown hair out of her eyes. “Just for a second.”

“Why don’t you use a spatula?”

“It’s just easier this way,” she said.

I didn’t get it. Why did we bother with the Bronze Age if we can’t use tools?

She plucked the gold-flecked tortilla out of the pan and wrapped it in a damp kitchen towel; and then in one smooth swoop, lifted another circle of dough off the counter. “Here, you try,” she said.

My whole life I believed there was a better way of doing things. Not just some things – everything.  Doing better is why people work out and take the GRE more than once. It’s why you take your vitamins and eat baked instead of fried.

Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori believed in striving for perfection: “But if it is true that we do the best we can, what is progress if not seeing that which we did not see before and doing that which we have never done, reaching for new things because they appear to be perfect and complete?”

But what if making progress actually means taking a step back?

At home I made a batch of tortillas following Louise’s recipe. Naturally, I pulled the spatula out of the drawer and set it next to the stove. It seemed like the right thing to do. Not only the right way, but the best way.

The dough in my hands seemed pliant and natural. I separated the mass into six or eight balls, and one by one rolled them into circles – none of them perfect.

Heat rose out of the pan and warmed my cheeks.  I picked up the first tortilla and lay it down on the black surface. No bubbles. I pulled the remaining dough back into a mass and kneaded it for a few seconds more. Should I make them thicker?

I set the next one in the pan. Within forty-five seconds, air bubbles formed. And then I did it. I reached in and flipped the tortilla with my fingers. I didn’t even think to pick up the spatula.

The spatula had seemed an unnecessary appendage, an unwelcome middleman. After I connected with the raw materials, the dusty flour, the warm water and wooden rolling pin, I didn’t want anything to interrupt the flow. My fingertips flew when I touched the tortilla’s hot edge and tossed it into the waiting damp dish towel. And while vastly irregular in appearance, my tortilla was absolutely perfect. FFG

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