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Food and Culture in Solito

Registration is open to our Author Talk Series, an event free and open to the public! Our guest, Javier Zamora will discuss his New York Times best-selling book Solito with moderator, Rutgers English department faculty member, Ben Purkert. Zamora will share his immigration journey with us and explore how identity influences our idea of home and brings humanity and warmth to the figure of the “immigrant.”

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Food is integrally tied to culture in so many ways, whether as comfort foods, pure sustenance or via specific flavor profiles. Slight variations in flavors, textures, spices, etc. can define and unite a culture and conjure up a “taste of home.”

In Javier Zamora’s Solito, these food nuances are told through the eyes of nine-year-old Zamora as he makes the treacherous journey from his native El Salvador to America (or as he calls it, La USA), where he can’t wait to reunite with his parents. His descriptions of the traditional foods of his home country are extremely detailed and evoke images of how he would have experienced these mouthwatering foods as a young boy, and then later imagined them when food got scarce, unfamiliar and homogenous while on the trip.

Every culture seems to have a form of flatbread, and El Salvador is no exception. Pupusas are a significant Salvadoran dish mentioned throughout the book. These thick, hearty griddle cakes are made with cornmeal and can be stuffed with various fillings prior to cooking, with cheese and beans favorite choices. Although eaten with zeal throughout the day, it is common for Salvadorans to serve them in the evening alongside various tangy relishes, such as curtido, a vinegary mix of shredded cabbage and carrots. This filling flatbread is so important to Salvadoran culture that it has been declared the national dish of El Salvador, with a specific day to celebrate it.

My attempt at Pupusas! Recipe from Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla

For Zamora, pupusas are doubly important, as they were an inherent part of his youth and provide comforting connections to his family. His Abuelita (grandmother) made them all the time – not only for him to eat, but also sell at her pupusa stand (also known as a pupusita), which was a true family business, where his mother, aunt and even he helped at one time or another, as relayed by Zamora in this excerpt from the book:

“Abuelita has been selling pupusas in front of the clinic where Mali [Zamosa’s aunt] worked since Mom was a kid. Mom helped her sell pupusas. Mali did as well, until she went to school and started working as a secretary at the clinic. When Mali forgets breakfast, Abuelita sends her a pupusa wrapped in foil, or pan dulce [sweet bread] in a paper bag. … When I’m not in school, I sell the best horchata, ensalada, maranon and chan. I’m a good salesman; I learned from sitting on Mom’s lap as she handed customers a plastic bag with whatever drink they ordered.”

Pupusas are his childhood. His mother. His grandmother. His aunt. Of course he misses this food. They are one of the foods on the menu of his favorite meal that Mali makes him before he leaves: “yucca frita with fried smelt, hard-boiled egg, queso duro on top; Abuelita made him his favorite puposas: bean, cheese and loroco [edible flower buds native to Central America].”

As makes his way north, the accent of the food changes with the dialect, with many becoming less and less familiar the farther north he travels. In Mexico, tortillas are thinner, with tacos a new food to him, but one he enjoys with gusto:

“Tacos are the best food in Mexico. The juices from the meat drench the tortilla with so much flavor. I finally like these thin tortillas. By themselves, the tortillas are tasteless, but like this …. And right then, a burning. An itch in the back of my tongue, traveling to the middle, to the front, to the roof of my mouth. I breathe air and fan my mouth next to Patricia, who asks, “¿You okay? ¿Do you want a coca?”

Soon after the delicious taste of the taco turns sour and bitter, as he takes the coke to cool off the heat of the spices but when he asks for a straw, he says the wrong word, tipping off those nearby that he isn’t Mexican, an important fact as he and the rest of his group make their way though Mexico. They need to blend in with the locals and not make the fact known that they are El Salvadoran, as they could get turned in to the authorities and sent home. Zamora highlights this type of assimilation and the micro-aggressions faced by many Central Americans in his poem “Nó, Actually, Soy Salvadoreño.

Other significant food touchstones Zamora mentions on this harrowing journey include:

  • A breakfast of refried beans and eggs with fat and big flour tortillas.
    • “The burnt spots almost the size of eyes; and they actually taste good. Better than the thin corn ones we’ve been eating.”
  • Chilaquiles (fried corn tortilla chips in a brothy sauce).
    • “ The chilaquiles are good. They almost taste like the enchiladas from El Mercado in La Herradura. The salsa on top, the crumbled cheese, are very similar. Except chilaquiles have scrambled eggs in them, but our enchiladas have boiled egg slices, sliced tomato, beets, and cucumber.”
  • A dinner of beans, rice, tortillas and cheese served by nuns in an albergue (shelter).
    • “The young nun grabs a paper plate, dips her scoop into one pot: ¡refried beans! Then she dips another scoop into the other pot: ¡yellow rice! … The older one, the one who looks like Abuelita, reaches over to our plate and drops a thin slice of queso fresco and two flour tortillas – ¡my favorite!

These types of food descriptions and recollections throughout Solito highlight just some of the many cultural changes and differences Zamora experienced as he made his way through Guatemala, Mexico and the Sonoran Desert. Foods that were somewhat familiar or otherwise comforting were a few fleeting ways he was able to cope with the extreme trauma, homesickness and desire to be reunited with his family.

… I have to add that listening to Solito on audio book took the experience to the next level. Read by Zamora himself, it allowed me to hear the specific Spanish accents and the enunciation in his voice relaying the dizzying array of emotions and sensations he went through, including fear, hunger, thirst, sadness, anger and hope.

For more on the topic of food and culture try the following:


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Interviews with Javier Zamora

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