My grandparents were avidly religious, devout Catholics which meant that my grandmother spent a lot of time working for the little church down the street, Christo Rey. When I was little, they’d have little tardeadas or late afternoon celebrations. There were booths where food was sold to make money for the programs at the church, etc. My grandmother tended a booth and hers was one of the busiest there. She sold sopes, those wonderful cripsy corn tortillas with the pinched up sides filled with meat, beans and other toppings.
I remember helping make the sopes. My job was to pinch up the sides of the tortilla, not such an easy job given it was a hot little thing. My grandmother was make the masa, shape it into little balls and my Auntie Jessie would press them in the tortilla press. She’d then had a fat little tortilla to my grandmother who would toast it on the griddle or comal till it was well cooked. The hot sopes would land in a plate near me and my grandfather and we had the job of making the sides.
To create the sides on a sope it has to be hot or it just doesn’t hold up the side very well so you take it and pinch into the hot dough and pinch all the way around till you end up with about a 1/4 inch rim around the tortilla. I always felt very brave and grown up pinching sopes because the tips of my little fingers would burn with the heat of them. We kept a little bowl of cold water nearby and I’d dip my fingers into it when I felt them growing too hot.
Over the years, my fingers grew more and more accustomed to it and rather desensitized. I pinch the sides of a sope without even thinking about it now, but when I was a kid in my grandmother’s kitchen it seemed a very grown up, big girl job that I was very proud to be able to do.
My grandmother and aunts made 100’s of sopes, chopped massive piles of tomatoes, onion and cilantro, shredded head after head of lettuce, cooked enormous pots of beans and meat. They’d then schlep all that stuff to the church, set up the booth and using a little camping type fire, would immediately start heating the oil to fry the sopes in.
Soon enough there’d be a long line and the tias and my grandma would fry and fill, fry and fill. I never remember a time when my grandmother’s booth didn’t sell out completely and then we were free to enjoy the event. Once, there were even voladores that came and sent us all to gasping as they flew round and round the pole tied by just what appeared to be a ribbon. I remember holding my grandpa’s hand thinking that they would fall and I still remember how he squeezed my hand and smiled down at me with that special smile that always made me feel safe and warm. He was proud of the voladores, proud of being Mexican and proud of his heritage.
It’s been many, many years since those days of church fairs, sopes, cracked confetti eggs on the heads of my cousins and the music of boleros drifting in and out of the crowds of people in the transformed church parking lot, but the smells, sounds and memories are still as sharp as that first sting of hot dough on my fingers.