If you’ve visited one of the many farmers markets scattered throughout the city this summer, you may have noticed a slight figure in an oversized jacket, asking if you’d like to try some salsa. Her voice barely carries over the giant cellophane bags of corn chips with a South-of-the-Border accent as authentic as it gets. Her name is Alice, or the tortilla lady here at the East Nashville Farmers Market and interacting with her feels more like a visit with your grandmother rather than a casual stop at a farmers market booth. I had purchased and quickly devoured a stack of her tortillas months prior, so I was eager to learn more about her background and the story behind her business. As I approach her booth, she is warm and friendly, as always, and invites me to take a seat beside her. After the initial exchange of polite introductions, I jump right into my first question: “Miss Alice, did you grow up making tortillas with your mother?” Like a silly gringa, I was expecting a story filled with tradition and childhood memories to unfold. Instead, Miss Alice digs a pointy index finger into my knee, leans right in, and spouts, “Hell, NO!”
Spoken like a true Southerner. We were only on the first question of our interview, yet I was already masa dough in her hands. I was hooked on Alice’s sparkling personality as much as I was her tortillas. And though the story behind Alice’s beginnings may not be what the typical gringo would expect, it is a story rich with love, family, and togetherness, coupled with an honest desire to provide Nashville with supremely delicious traditional fare.
Alice Heffernan Salazar is actually not from a place south of the border, but from San Antonio, TX, where her family has lived for many generations. (Heffernan is her husband’s name of Irish/German decent, and Salazar is for her father, she lovingly says with her hand over her heart.) Like many Southwestern native Americans and Northern Mexicans, Alice was raised eating flour tortillas instead of the traditional corn, since flour became a foundation to the regional cuisine due to a climate favorable to wheat production and the product’s solid shelf life and shipping abilities. She was 9 years old when she left the Southwest and moved to Chicago, IL, where she and her husband, John, worked in the printing business. And although her trade was not in tortillas, she never forgot her father’s dream of starting a tortilleria of his own. That dream would be forgotten until after their retirement, when Alice and John came to Nashville to be closer to her daughter, Carole, and son-in-law, Colby.
It was Colby’s idea to initiate the bakery, she admits. He wanted his energetic mother-in-law to have something to keep her busy, so he bought the equipment himself and together they launched the company 4 years ago. The entire family pitched in to help, and together they work side-by-side in the tortilleria. Jokingly, I ask, “So, you learned to make tortillas from your son-in-law, Miss Alice?” “Yep, ” She replies. “And guess what? He’s Jewish!” Her sense of humor is devilish and she has everyone around her in stitches. She is adored by all. Plain and simple.
The Santos de Atocha Tortilleria is located at 720 Nashville Pike in Gallatin, TN, in a modest store front in the Sumner Shopping Center. She arrives every morning by 8am and runs the machines until around 10:15am. Piping hot tortillas are ready to be devoured by customers at 10:30am every morning, she says. “Those babies are hot and ready. Just a little salt and salsa, and you’re ready to go.” And thought her story may be a tad nontraditional, her tortillas are anything but. They are made with 3 basic ingredients: corn, water, and lime, and are sold in a variety of sizes, stacked high in warm bundles. The way corn tortillas should be. The corn is local and ground in her store and can be purchased by customers who want to make their own tortillas at home. She also sells a prepared masa for tamale-making, dried corn husks, her addictive crunchy fried corn chips, and fresh cans of homemade salsa made by her husband, the gringo, she says. Her products can also be found in many stores, such as the Turnip Truck and the Produce Place. More information, including products, prices and where to buy, can be found on her website at www. santostortillas.com.
If you are unable to visit her bakery in Gallatin, Miss Alice is always at the East Nashville Farmers Market (as well as other markets in the area), ready to place a warm bundle of tortillas in your hand that you won’t be able to refuse. You’ll be hooked. Plain and simple.
Submitted by Rebecah Boynton