Nathan's Laserium: Tortilla la Unica

Here is a story about high school, and tortillas, and my friend Dalbir, who was too polite to correct me when I mispronounced his name for the entirety of our friendship.

Although I have long since forgotten the reason, at some point we decided that we would stick the word “tortilla” in the title of every essay we wrote. It started off simply, calling a work on Nazis “Tortilla Fascists”, but gradually grew more ornate with each essay, culminating in “A Truckload of Tortilla Shells in Trinidad”. That one was about the Vietnam War.

Our teachers generally accepted this without comment, though they would usually pencil in a small question mark by the title. I suppose as long as we handed them in on time they didn’t really care what they were called.

One day at lunch Dalbir and I were walking outside our school, when we spotted a tiny little shop. The shop had always been there, of course, but it hadn’t always been called . . . Tortilla La Unica! I could hardly believe my eyes, and I pointed it out to Dalbir. He nodded sagely. All was as it should be.

Accustomed to the unknown, we were unafraid to venture into this wondrous new shop whose very name validated our chosen academic motif. We quickly crossed the street and went inside. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a shop quite like it. It consisted of four walls and a concrete floor (orange, if I recall correctly), in the center of which stood a single fridge. Next to it sat a young man. He did not seem at all surprised to see us, though I suspect we were his first customers ever.

“Do you have any tortillas?” I asked.

He opened the fridge, and inside were packages of tortillas. Many packages of tortillas. Nothing else.

“How much for a package of tortillas?”

They had two options: a small bag for three dollars and a jumbo one for five. Since we didn’t really need any tortillas at all, we bought the smaller bag, though the jumbo was clearly the better deal. Victorious, we headed back to school to show our friends our bounty, munching on a tortilla along the way. For some reason, no one was all that impressed. So we passed tortillas all around, and as they ate, they continued to be unimpressed. They were a little dry, and without anything to add, like meat or salsa, kind of plain. And we still had quite a few left. So we decided to try and sell them.

Although at any given time there is not much of a market for single tortilla shells, we managed to sell a few, for about ten cents each. We were asking a dollar but ten cents was all anyone was willing to pay so we took it. Pretty soon the hallways were filled with tortilla frisbees, which would have made an excellent title for an essay. I seem to recall a teacher getting mad at us for this, but we simply explained the principles of capitalism that we had been learning in our Social Studies class (and could have written about, in an essay entitled “Tortilla-faire”), namely that a producer is not responsible for the way a consumer uses his products.

We went back to Tortilla La Unica from time to time, mainly to convince ourselves that it was real. Once there was even some customers there who weren’t us. Dalbir and I devoted considerable thought to what it all meant. We theorized that this little store must surely have had some other, more sinister purpose. Perhaps it was a front for a gun smuggling operation. If so, however, they were far too clever for us, for when we sent two spies named Jason and Colin to inquire about purchasing firearms they were told that they had no weapons for sale, only tortillas. So, we had no choice but to conclude that this was indeed its sole purpose.

The proprietors eventually added a counter and placed the fridge behind it, removing that pleasant feeling of unity (Unica?) between us and the owners. This may have been the beginning of the end, for after a while Tortilla La Unica was no more. The dimensional vortex was closed forever.

I guess it’s no surprise that a tortilla store wouldn’t last long in Canada, but I still feel bad for the people who had the sheer guts to come all the way from Mexico to open such an establishment. In a better world, they would have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, starting a nation-wide franchise of Tortilla La Unicas, more ubiquitous than Tim Horton’s (I asked my sister, who lives in Mexico, what La Unica means, and she told me it means “the one and only”).

Back in the early nineties when they opened for business, no one would have dreamed that in a few years bagel stores would pop up everywhere. The first time I saw a Great Canadian Bagel I laughed and said to myself, “Bagels are just unflavored donuts, who on earth would want one?” Lots of people, turns out. But it could have been, and dammit, it should have been, tortillas that took over the world.

Perhaps it’s my fault that they didn’t- I was the one who called them fascists, after all.


- Nathan Waddell