Shoreham resident Blanca Flores wasn’t prepared for the snow when she moved to Vermont from El Salvador in the winter of 2006.
She also wasn’t prepared for the food.
At the time, her husband, who had already been working in the United States for about nine years, was a farmhand at Kayhart Farms in Waltham. That was where Flores first encountered things like baked beans and peanut butter — foods she’d never come across back home.
“I had never eaten beans that sweet before,” she said in Spanish — Liz Scarinci, a Middlebury College student, did the translating.
Five years later, Flores said peanut butter and baked beans are still not on her list of favorite foods. She likes food from home better, though she said it’s hard to find some of the ingredients here in Vermont.
“I try to eat like I ate in El Salvador,” she said. “I don’t have a favorite food, but if you put rice and beans in front of me I will eat very well.”
And for two years now, Flores has helped many others to eat well.
Her experiences as a teenager in rural El Salvador, learning to make large batches of tamales (a traditional dish made from a meat and vegetable filling wrapped in corn dough, then cooked inside of a banana leaf), have served her well in rural Vermont. For the past few years, she’s been whipping up tamales for acquaintances on farms all over Addison County, and has also made several batches for the students in Juntos, a Middlebury College migrant outreach group.
Photo via Flickr user gmgarvin(sv)
It’s an informal system, said Flores. At first a few friends asked her to make tamales for them. Now she knows more people, and they call her to ask if she’ll be making them. After Flores finds out how many they want, she gets to work: one recent batch was 328 tamales. Afterward making them, she delivers them.
Flores’s tamale business is not just a way to make a little extra cash, it provides a taste of home for many of the migrant farm workers who work on Addison County’s dairy farms. Flores’ tamales differ from what the primarily Mexican migrant workers are used to. El Salvadoran tamales are wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks, and are shaped and cooked differently than those from Mexico.
But that, she said, is rarely a problem.
“Last time, one guy asked for 115 tamales,” she said with a laugh. “There were five guys in the house.”
The quantities Flores makes here are nothing to what she made for family and friends back in El Salvador. In one day, she said, she and two other women made 1,000 tamales. And while it’s more tiring now that she’s making them by herself, it’s not particularly difficult.
“It’s hard when you’re learning, but once you know how to do it you’re fine — it goes faster,” Flores said.
Years of experience have taught her to prepare the ingredients in advance — she cooks the meat, potatoes and carrots separately before she wraps all the ingredients in banana leaves to bake.
Flores said that banana leaves are very hard to find in Vermont. But she gets hers from a man who delivers ingredients to farmworkers across the region.
Peter Conlon, a human resources manager for farm labor company Agri-Placement Services, said that there are a number of micro-businesses that have sprung up around delivering hard-to-find ingredients to Hispanic workers on dairy and other farms in New England.
And, he added, many of the migrant workers he knows in the county look forward to getting tamales from Flores as a welcome break from cooking.
“99 percent of what these guys eat, they’re making it themselves,” Conlon said.
Since many of these farm workers lack regular transportation, and not all speak English, they are limited in their forays off the farm. So for many, these tamales are a rare opportunity to order out their food.
TIES TO HOME
While Flores described the tamale-making process, her three-year-old daughter, Linda, danced around the table wearing a snowsuit with monkey ears and a tail.
“My mom makes tamales!” she shouted in English.
Now that Flores is driving Linda to preschool three days a week, she said she has less time to make tamales.
But when Linda is ready, Flores said she will teach her the best technique.
“It all depends on when she’s smart enough to make them really fast,” said Flores.
And some day, said Flores, she will move away from Vermont — back to El Salvador, or maybe to California. While she likes it here, she said she misses El Salvador and her family. And, though she’s taken some lessons, she said it’s still difficult for her to understand English, and there are few people who speak Spanish in the area.
For now, though, Flores makes sure to visit El Salvador at least once each year.
“It’s small but very pretty,” she said. “Nicaragua has a lake that’s bigger than all of El Salvador.”
When she goes home, Flores makes sure to bring some North American food traditions back to her family. A few years ago, she insisted on making a turkey on Thanksgiving, though her father was sure it would be tasteless.
“I said, ‘No, no. I can prepare it differently and better,’” she said.
So she stuffed it as she’d learned to do in Vermont, and her family got a pleasant surprise.
“Now it’s a special tradition in the family,” she said. “When I go to El Salvador, everyone says, ‘OK, let’s prepare a turkey together.’”