A Salvadorean quesadilla is a type of pound cake, made from wheat flour, rice flour, eggs, queso fresco, sugar and margarine.
“Mexicans think it’s something else,” laughs Guadalupe, who bakes about 40 quesadillas a week in her Hanahan trailer. Its front room is sparsely occupied by a chocolate brown leather sofa opposite a television, children’s toys and a table set with white sugar sacks.
The recipe is simple enough that Guadalupe pretty much had it down pat after her sister-in-law demonstrated it once. “It’s easy: No big deal,” Guadalupe says, speaking in Spanish. “You mix it up and put it in the oven for two hours.”
Still, it was a big deal when Guadalupe’s family two years ago relocated here from New York, drawn by a climate in which her husband could mow lawns year-round, and couldn’t find a bakery selling quesadillas. In her native El Salvador, it’s common to have a slice of quesadilla with coffee in the morning.
So that’s when Guadalupe became a quesadilla professional, advertising her cakes on Facebook Marketplace.
Since its 2016 launch, the online board has emerged as a lively digital swap meet, with users posting what they make, find, inherit, break, buy and replace. Plenty of the items are meant to be eaten: On a recent weekday afternoon, browsers in the Charleston area had their pick of just-harvested pears; beef lumpia; made-to-order marshmallows; garlic crabs; yardbird eggs; Brazilian-style beans and turkey wings.
But, at least locally, the site is especially popular with Latin American immigrants, who use the forum to hawk familiar tastes of home. Many of the cooks who are active on Facebook Marketplace regularly post lists of the lunch items they can deliver to work sites, allowing customers to split a day’s hard labor with something as comforting as pork ribs in guajillo chile sauce, served over beans and macaroni.
Officially, food sales arranged through Facebook Marketplace are illegal, since the cooks aren’t licensed and the transactions aren’t taxed. (To protect the livelihoods of cooks interviewed for this story, The Post and Courier is identifying them only by first name).
Yet there’s a movement stirring on the West Coast to support small-scale home cooking enterprises by codifying how they operate. According to activists seeking state sanction for the underground food economy, regulation could enhance public safety and create legitimate entrepreneurial opportunities for mothers home with young children; retirees struggling to get by on their savings and immigrants who haven’t yet mastered English.
“Cooks are the nurturers and the pillars of their communities,” says Matt Jorgensen of California’s C.O.O.K Alliance. Their work, though, has “historically remained in the realm of under-compensated female labor.”
Cooking up legislation
C.O.O.K Alliance (the letters stand for “Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens”) got its start as a different kind of business. Founded in 2015 as Josephine, the company intended to provide an online platform for home cooks, making Beijing dumplings and Bengali curries as accessible as an Uber ride. But even with an estimated 100,000 home cooks statewide selling food for profit, Josephine struggled to coax enough cooks out of the shadows to produce a robust database.
Josephine shut down in March. Jorgensen, its co-CEO, then created C.O.O.K Alliance to lobby for passage of the nation’s first law legalizing “microenterprise home kitchens.”
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Homemade Food Operations Act on Sept. 19. Starting next year, cooks in California who sell no more than $50,000 worth of food a year will be able to register their businesses, and have them inspected and permitted according to standards specific to home kitchens.
“It’s really a landmark bill in many ways,” Jorgensen says. He points out that a permit brings with it not only a sense of pride and responsibility but also “access to liability insurance, and the type of things that make you feel good about running a business.”
This isn’t the first time that California has been out front on relaxing restrictions pertaining to home-cooked food. The state was an early adopter of a Cottage Food Act, which allows the limited sale of homemade low-risk foods, such as cookies and jam: Similar provisions are now in place in every state except New Jersey.
Laws governing cottage food vary wildly in scope, but according to a new report by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, they’re generally too complex and constraining.
Additionally, Jorgensen argues many of them are relevant solely to self-styled artisans who are predominantly white and wealthy. For instance, the foods covered by Rhode Island’s law include “double-crust pies made with fruit grown locally”; fudge; dried herbs and “maple syrup from the sap of trees within a 20-mile radius of the farm.” In other words, tamales aren’t eligible.
In South Carolina, only “non-potentially hazardous baked goods and candy” qualify as cottage foods.
It’s not clear how many South Carolinians have taken advantage of the law since it was enacted in 2012, since the state’s Department of Revenue doesn’t distinguish cottage food producers from other food retailers, but the vast majority of cooks advertising on Facebook Marketplace are working outside of it.
Whether they're facing consequences for their activities is another data point that the state doesn't track. According to a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which is responsible for the enforcement of food safety codes, the agency's records don't show if a food seller operating without a permit was working out of his or her home.
Food handoffs arranged via Facebook often transpire in parking lots: Walmart is a popular meeting spot when the buyer’s home or worksite isn’t convenient. That’s where Daniel and Alejita, dressed in matching Colombian soccer jerseys, delivered two $9 Colombian tamales purchased by this reporter.
Alejita, 27, makes the tamales at their home in Goose Creek. In keeping with the cooking traditions of Tolima, where she grew up, the tamal is a complete meal of masa, green beans, carrots, potatoes, pork, chicken and an egg, all boiled together and swaddled in a plantain leaf. “It’s a big tamal,” she says.
Just as Guadalupe has to sometimes explain to prospective customers from Mexico that her quesadillas aren’t made with tortillas and melted cheese, Alejita has to tell Mexicans who contact her that tamales Tolimenses aren’t spicy: They taste primarily of salt and chicken stock. “Colombian people know,” she says. And they’re so eager to reconnect with the flavor that Alejita has sold out her entire stock of 50 tamals every weekend since she launched her business this summer. Daniel, 30, says they may need to buy a bigger pot.
With a young child and another on the way, Daniel says they’re glad to have found a way for Alejita to make extra money without leaving home. “I love it,” she says.
It makes sense for Kristina, 31, to rendezvous with buyers in parking lots, since the trunk of her white Infiniti station wagon functions as a prep station.
Kristina serves antojitos, or little Mexican street snacks, so drives around with storage containers filled with sliced cucumbers for fruit salad; powdered cheese for corn cobs and crackers for shrimp cocktail (She also sells the storage containers, but that’s a separate endeavor). She’s perpetually ready with paper napkins, skewers, hot sauce and aluminum foil, all neatly tucked into a brown wicker picnic basket.
Unlike most Facebook Marketplace sellers catering to the area’s Latino community, Kristina was born in South Carolina. “I’m white as can be,” she says. “But my best friend in school was Chicana, and I just got involved.”
When buyers see Kristina’s pale skin, they’re sometimes skeptical of what she’s serving. “Then they try it, and they’re like, this is really good,” she says. One day, Kristina might like to have her own food truck, featuring her seasoned fruit concoctions, garnished with hot Takis and belts of rainbow sugar candies.
She thinks it could work in Charleston. But she wouldn’t try it in Columbia, where she struck out with her mobile antojitos service. There, she says, “they’d rather go to restaurants.”
But here, with relatively few established Latino restaurants and a sizable Latino community with particular cravings, there’s nothing to rival Facebook.