AUDIO: Where's the Honduran food?
This story was originally produced for the Southern Foodways Alliance on its Okracast.
On a Sunday Afternoon in August, the all-Latino Pelican Soccer league is in playoffs at one of New Orleans City Park soccer fields. Hundreds have come to cheer on husbands, brothers, uncles, and friends -- it’s a family affair.
Dona Gloria, a native of Honduras, is deep-frying chicken parts under a large tent on the sidelines. She’s surrounded by fryers and flaming grills in the 90-degree heat. Gloria’s the on-site chef for the league, and cooks for the crowds every Saturday and Sunday from February to November. She builds complex flavors with simple ingredients.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and everyone knows me as Doña Gloria, the great cook. And here I am.”
She has beef and pork on the grill, rice and beans simmering, and potato salad on the side.
“We have pollo con tajades -- it comes with green plantains, cabbage, salsa, sauce, onion, and jalapeño — it’s the special chicken dish.”
Gloria’s also making baleadas. A baleada is a wheat flour tortilla, but thicker than you’d expect, like an Indian naan -- folded in half and filled with beans, cheese, eggs, meat, and, if you’re lucky, avocado. This is one of the country’s most popular breakfast and snack items.
New Orleans has a sizable Honduran population — almost as large as its Vietnamese population. Yet while Vietnamese cuisine is popular across the city, Honduran food has yet to cross over into the mainstream.
Gloria dreams of having a restaurant one day. But for now, she serves her loyal customer base on the field. She
came here in the '80s as a single mother with her daughters. She knew others who left Honduras in search of the comforts and opportunity they had heard the states had to offer, and New Orleans was a common destination.
It has been for the past century.
Sarah Fouts is a doctoral candidate at Tulane University researching Latinos in the U.S. and their foodways.
“New Orleans, with the port, has a unique history of fruit trade, specifically with bananas," she says. "So the biggest name that’s most familiar was Samuel Zemurray.”
Zemurray, also known as “Sam the Banana Man,” was a Russian immigrant who ended up in New Orleans. He began scouring the port for the overripe bananas being thrown out, and selling them to street grocers for cheap. In 1898, when Zemurray was just 21, he met a former Honduran president named Manuel Bonilla, who was living in exile in the French Quarter. Bonilla told him that Honduras was bountiful with bananas, and that he could help him start a business. The ultimate result: The United Fruit Company.
“I think that created this early relationship with Hondurans and New Orleans," says Fouts. "So who is coming today is like ‘I have a cousin’ or ‘I know someone that’s in New Orleans, so that’s why I’m in New Orleans.’ It’s just word of mouth in having those early connections.”
Another Sarah, owner of Taqueria La Delicia food truck (or Lonchera), runs the business with a few friends. Sarah usually sticks to the one location: right by a big Lowes Home Improvement store on Elysian Fields Avenue. She parks where the road meets the train tracks, under the freeway overpass. She serves a lot of the day laborers who wait outside the Lowes,looking for work. Taqueria La Delicia stays busy, and so does Sarah.
“At 4:30 in the morning, I wake up to cook -- to fry beans, fry eggs. Prepare the maiz for the tortillas. Make different types of natural juices, like mango with pineapple, tamarind, melon, watermelon, whichever, it’s always different each morning. And then we come here.”
They leave the house at 6 a.m. to buy ice, put gas in the generator, and get to their spot by 6:20, where they serve until 5 p.m.
“Later, at 5, I go home and there’s another lady cooking everything, preparing the meat. You have to make salsas for the next day. You have to grate cheese. All this until 9 or 10 at night. Every day.”
The aftermath of hurricane Katrina provided job opportunities for tons of Central Americans to come help rebuild the city. And most of them have stayed, says Sarah Fouts.
“Post Katrina you have all these workers and you need these mobile vendors of food and how are you getting food to people? So the way in which they’re on the street, they’re filling a need, they’re getting food that people are familiar with that they want to eat.”
While Gloria back at the soccer field dreams of running a restaurant one day, Sarah is happy serving on four wheels. It’s quick and convenient for her clients. The only downside is she can’t make the pollo con tajades- the truck’s too crowded to fry chicken. This is a problem for some people, like Jose Castillo, who runs Norma’s Sweets Bakery with his wife.
Jose moved here from Honduras when he was five years old. Jose’s mom, Norma, opened the bakery in 2003 in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. Jose and his wife worked there, but then the family decided to open up a second location in New Orleans. This Norma’s is located in Midcity, where a lot of the New Orleans Latino population lives.
There’s a grocery section, an amazing bakery with all sorts of sweet and savory pastries, tres leches, and of course, churros. Next to the bakery is a hot food section where Norma’s serves lunch every day with everything from Honduran Baleadas to El Salvadoran papusas. There’s also a Western Union window, where people can send money back home.
“Back before Katrina there was union supermarket here on Tulane” Jose recalls. “To me, the Union Supermarket was the best store to go to. It always had all the little Latin products you were looking for to make those Latin dishes when everything was very hard to find.”
The Union Supermarket never came back after the hurricane, so Norma’s is the new hub for specialty items and home cooked lunch plates in a central part of town. And in terms of its clientele, Jose says it’s still Latin based. “But now we have a lot of Americans that come here they wanna eat beans the baleada. I’m happy when I see a new face but I’m very happy when I see the same face come back.”
Elizabeth Oviedo, a native of Honduras, moved from Houston to New Orleans to work in disaster clean-up after Katrina.
“We were in the schools, cleaning out the books, the trash, water, the furniture. When the work ended, a lot of people went back to Houston. But I couldn't go back because I came to pursue a dream. I stayed with some friends here. The work ended but I started to cook. [They would go to work for the day and I would cook. And in the afternoons, I'd serve them food. The whole time I was thinking: when I can rent a house, I'm going to run my restaurant out of that house. And that's how I got started.”
The people Elizabeth cooked for were the day laborers from all over Central and South America who continued in the rebuilding process after the storm. Elizabeth saved up 80,000 dollars that first year feeding the day laborers. She drew so much attention from the dozens of cars parked outside her house each day, that city officials showed up to see what was going on.
“They knocked on my door and asked 'You sell food here? and I said 'Yeah,' and they said 'You can't sell food here anymore because it's not legal. They told me: look for a place. We're not going to fine you. We'll help you. I had the money but I didn't have any knowledge of how to rent a place, the permits. And they helped me. The guy that had shut me down in the first place, he came and brought all the permits to me. They followed up with me until I opened the restaurant.”
And so Elizabeth has succeeded in what many Honduran cooks dream of, a real brick and mortar business: she runs Telemar on Tulane Avenue. This restaurant serves a particular clientele.
"We get a lot of men, mostly men. A lot of them aren't married and they don't have someone to cook for them. They go to work, then they come here to eat.”
Jose from Norma’s says Americans like Honduran food. They just might not know it’s Honduran. “Marketing-wise the word Mexican, it’s more known in the United States, people tend to think that all food is Mexican or something like that!”
And some Hondurans are using this assumption to get New Orleanians through their doors. Sarah Fouts points out how signage is the key. Once on the North Shore, the other side of Lake Pontrartrain from New Orleans, Sarah saw a sign that caught her eye.
“There was this sign that reads in English: Mexican American café, in big letters, it’s the main part of the sign. But on top of that in Spanish it says typical Honduran soups and plates. So for the English speaking market they’re trying to sell this Honduran food because that’s the presumed pallet of this non-Latino population- Mexican food, that’s what’s familiar. But for the Spanish speaking they admit it’s Honduran food!”
But Jose thinks this is slowly starting to change. He points to the popularity of Vietnamese food in New Orleans. He says this could be what’s next for Honduran cuisine.
“But now Vietnamese people are opening restaurants, and they’ve been here! Since the 70s, and no one knew what a Vietnamese restaurant was. And now they do.”
So maybe one day, Honduran restaurants will start popping up on every corner. But for now, most Honduran food in New Orleans is still about serving their community. It’s nostalgic. Food reminds us of home. Everyone has stories about food, but they’re really stories about family. Here’s Jose’s.
“When I was a kid my mom would always cook a meal on Sunday, and family members and friends would always come. And when we were eating they would always say ‘buen provecho’. Translated it’s saying good opportunity. So I was like, man, every time we cooking, they’re here! So they always know the opportunity of when to come eat! But as I got older I was taught that buen provecho was ‘enjoy your food’. The French say bon appetite. So it’s a nice custom, it’s not saying ‘hey this is a good opportunity to come eat your food!’ But I was like man, they always know when we’re cooking!”
Honduran food may still be hard to find, but it’s here if you look for it. Buen Provecho.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.