Unearthing the diverse cuisines of Central America
By Lola Milholland
Photos by Robbie McClaran
On Sunday mornings at 8 A.M., Amalia Vazquez and her crew—husband Juan, 18-year-old daughter Alondra, 11-year-old son Edgar, and friend and employee Leo Perez Salinas—arrive at the parking lot of King Elementary School off Northeast Alberta and Seventh Avenue, set up a white square tent and then enclose themselves on all sides with tables, coolers and seven propane-fueled burners. On the front counter, they place two beehive-shaped vitroleros full of icy aguas frescas that Vasquez makes with whatever fruits or seeds are in season.
At 10 A.M., King Farmers’ Market opens, and Alondra begins taking orders. Vazquez presses fresh tortillas in a sturdy wooden press, lays them on the hot surface of a broad griddle and then flips them with her fingers. They puff up like little pita breads.
“All the food that I cook is from my mother,” says Vazquez of her menu. “When I was little, this,” she turns from her press and begins patting and rotating a mound of fresh masa in her hands until it’s a flat, thin tortilla, “was my chore.”
Vazquez, an indigenous Mixteca, grew up in Tacache de Mina, a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She first came to the United States in 1993 to visit her two brothers and moved here permanently in 1999 to join her husband.
When cantaloupes are in season, she makes traditional Oaxacan horchata, scooping the seeds from the ripe melons and blending them with blanched almonds for a refreshing drink that has all the creaminess of rice-based horchata with none of the chalkiness. She sweetens the drink with homemade cinnamon syrup and finishes with a squeeze of lime juice.
Wait, horchata? The word may bring to mind pearly-colored, sugary rice milk flecked with cinnamon, but in fact, horchata can be made from any number of nuts, grains and seeds so long as the results are creamy and sweet. Horchata, which is specifically found across Central America, is a primary example of the diversity of regional Latino food. Its origins trace back across the Atlantic with the conquistadores to sweetened grain and nut beverages that, legend has it, Spanish King James I of Aragon named in the 13th century when he exclaimed, after his first taste, “Això és or, xata!” or “That’s gold, darling!”
In El Salvador and Honduras, horchata is traditionally made from the seeds of the cannon-ball-shaped morro gourd, ground cocoa and chufa nuts, which look like bumpy caramel peanuts; Puerto Rican horchata features sesame seeds; and in the Yucatan, local variations start with barley and coconut milk.
The appearance of unusual horchatas around town—like the one Vasquez makes—reflects a dramatic population shift. In the last decade, waves of Latinos have come to Oregon, bringing an appetite for their local foods and drinks with them. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Marion Counties collectively surged 63 percent, to 269,140, or around one-in-seven people who live in these counties. This critical mass means that rather than pandering to pan-Mexican food expectations, they are also cooking for and selling food to one another, sharing the regional dishes that they long for. Latino food available locally is gaining both depth and specificity.
From tamales to tlayudas
The increase in authentic traditional Latino food at farmers’ markets around town is also directly tied to the work of Hacienda Community Development Corporation. Founded in 1992 to provide affordable housing, foreclosure prevention and family services for the Latino community in Portland, Hacienda expanded its reach more than a decade ago to include community economic development.
In 2006, Hacienda formed the Micro Mercantes program to support older women who wanted to earn an extra income. “We started with tamales,” says Caitlin Burke, the Micro Mercantes coordinator. But after several years hearing frequent requests for more in-depth technical assistance from people who wanted to make a culinary business their mainstay, in 2009, Hacienda began offering an eleven-week business development course; this year, they added a financial education course.
In 2013, seven graduates of the Hacienda courses have joined Micro Mercantes, which has transformed into a business incubation program. They are making and selling everything from banana-leaf and corn-husk tamales to El Salvadoran papusas, Colombian empanadas con aji and Oaxacan tlayudas, a 14-inch round masa cake, as thin and crispy as a matzo cracker, on which Amalia Vazquez spreads a layer of black beans, stringy Oaxacan quesillo cheese, cabbage, seasoned meat, red onions, slices of tomato and radish, and scoops of avocado, and then slices like a pizza. Hacienda helps these micro-entrepreneurs access capital and provides training and an affordable commissary kitchen—a rarity in the city proper.
“Many of our entrepreneurs speak little to no English, and they have difficulty understanding the vocabulary of technical regulations and licensing,” Burke explains. “We don’t do things for them. We empower each entrepreneur to be self-sufficient by guiding them through the process.” Seven Micro Mercantes businesses are selling at farmers’ markets across the metro area and several are running full-service catering businesses.
The farmers’ markets have proven to be a welcoming community for these entrepreneurs to launch their businesses. “Their whole concept changes when they start selling at the farmers’ market,” Burke says. “They have a cultural exchange; they learn about the sustainable practices of the market and test the viability of their products with new customers.” Hacienda encourages the Micro Mercantes businesses to establish a culture of supporting local businesses, each other and the community by pooling their resources, donating to gleaners groups and purchasing from other farmers’ market vendors. As their relationships with local farmers deepen, Burke notes, they have been experimenting with local ingredients and asking farmers to grow produce that they would otherwise omit or import from Latin America. It’s a moment when cultural collision could provide the spark for a more collaborative, racially and culturally diverse local food economy.
“The first time I came, I didn’t know what to eat,” recalls Meliton Martinez, who came to Oregon from the same Oaxacan town as Vazquez in his teens in 1988. “I would go to Fred Meyer, and if I heard someone speaking in Spanish,” he cups his hand behind his ear as though listening across aisles, “I would run to see what they were buying.”
Martinez worked as a farm laborer and then dishwasher while living with his brother and four to five other men in a one-room apartment. “The other guys weren’t willing to cook—old guys who thought cooking was for women,” he recalls. When his soccer team would come home to the complex where they lived, he would cook for them, improvising from childhood memories and often calling his mom in Tacache for directions. “When you leave home, you appreciate the flavors,” says his wife Maria Ordóñez; she spent her childhood divided between the states of Jalisco in western Mexico and Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Early in their relationship, Ordóñez brought Martinez, who she met in Portland in 1992, to a friend’s house for dinner, and he had his first taste of cochinita pibil—a traditional Yucatecan dish of fragrant pork that is marinated in sour orange juice and achiote, also known as annatto, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a pit. “I fell in love with the flavor,” he recalls. For years, while working as a line cook at Shari’s by day, Martinez practiced making the Yucatecan foods that he had come to love by night.
Ordóñez and Martinez are among the seven Micro Mercantes vendors. Their business, Bekal—named for a town in Ordóñez’s home state of Campeche—has a booth at the Hillsboro Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and Sunnyside Grange Market in Clackamas on Sundays where they sell panuchos, a puffy, fried handmade tortilla stuffed with black beans and topped with lettuce and other vegetables they buy from farmers at the market; his favorite, cochinita pibil, served on panuchos and in tacos and tortas; and a zucchini-cucumber agua fresca, made in season from a recipe by Ordóñez’s mother that took first place in an aguas frescas contest in Jalisco last year.
“We have customers coming every week. One dresses in a Scottish kilt,” Ordóñez says. Martinez will begin preparing his favorite dish—panuchos—when he sees him approaching. Some of their regulars have asked them to up the ante and make a batch of the truly traditional cochinita that they eat at home: “We use all parts of the pig: ears, stomach…It gives a different flavor.”
For the Micro Mercantes businesses, selling at the farmers’ markets this year sets the stage for a visionary undertaking Hacienda will launch in 2014 called the Portland Mercado. A year-round Latino public market at Southeast Seventy-Second Avenue and Foster Road, the Portland Mercado will fill a full block with an outdoor plaza and a building with all manner of Latino businesses. These Micro Mercantes vendors will run food carts lining the plaza as a next step toward owning brick-and-mortar businesses. Inside the building, Hacienda has made up plans for a tapas restaurant, tortilleria (fresh tortilla shop), panaderia (bakery), Oaxacan ice cream shop, and fruit and aguas frescas shop, to name a few, as well as an affordable commissary kitchen to incubate culinary businesses, and a community events room.
“When we selected the architect and the contractor, our executive director Victor Merced would say, ‘Tell us about the Latinismo!’” Valentina Gomez-Orantes, Portland Mercado program manager, recalls. In effect, he was asking, How will this place encourage community pride and reflect the kaleidoscope of diverse Latino cultures?
U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley; U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici; Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen; and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales have all expressed public support, which helped Hacienda receive a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services for nearly $800,000 for construction.
The Portland Mercado is part of a thoughtful push to develop businesses in East Portland that root the community in place rather than set the stage for gentrification. In this ethnically diverse neighborhood, Vietnamese live side by side with Russians, Ethiopians, El Salvadorans and more. “We really want this to be a place for cultural exchange,” says Jamie Melton, Portland Mercado marketing specialist, “a center for education, art and music; where you can celebrate Colombian Independence, Day of the Dead.” Food is the cultural bridge.
Setting down new roots
There is a reason that both Martinez and Vasquez come from the same town in Oaxaca. Crippled by poverty, the Oaxaca population has flooded out of the state seeking a better life. Leaving a culture rooted in agriculture, many have come to Oregon for seasonal farm work, tracing the steps of their friends and relatives who came before them.
If Martinez was part of a first immigration wave from Oaxaca, made up largely of men, and Vazquez represents a second wave—of wives and children—then recently, a third wave has come: an older generation following their children who are settling in their homes. These mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who have guided their children’s homesick cooking from afar, are reaching town, and that promises new depths of flavor and skill.
When Vazquez’s father-in-law and Martinez’s father moved to Portland, both started gardens where they are growing herbs from Oaxaca, including papalos, pipichas and alaches.
Traditional Oaxacan cuisine of the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples is as old and refined as Europe’s finest. It gives a window on the brilliant thrift and intimacy with New World ingredients that cooks developed across millennia—leading to, for example, cantaloupe seed horchata. Amid shifting demographics, food remains the key ingredient to bridging cultures and building communities.
Lola Milholland will never compost her cantaloupe seeds again.