Field Report: Exploring Culture through Cuisine

El Carbonero: An El Salvadoran Cuisine

            Before preparing for this assignment, my friends and I were talking about how we wanted to get out of the Elon bubble and explore what our community has to offer us in terms of food and culture. When I thought of incorporating this field report, we decided to visit a cuisine we’ve never tried before. We asked around—where can we get an authentic cuisine? A friend recommended El Carbonero. She said her Spanish professor treated her class to lunch there once because it was his favorite South American cuisine around Elon. Specifically, El Carbonero serves very authentic El Salvadoran dishes. It sounded good to me! I figured, I like Mexican food, how different can El Salvadoran food be? I called to make sure they would be open that Thursday night and the woman on the phone could barely speak English! I took that as a good sign that this restaurant would exceed my expectations of authentication.

            Four friends and I drove out to Graham to find this place. After passing it twice, we finally spotted the building. Pulling in, it definitely looked a little rough on the outside. It had very little parking and it didn’t seem like it was in a great part of town. However, we were warned of that from El Carbonero’s reviews on Yelp so we continued. We sat down and realized that we were the only Caucasian people in the building. There were four other tables with families—all from Central or South American decent and all speaking Spanish. Yup, it looks like we found the place. I believe that our waitress, Alejandra, was the one I talked to on the phone because she was the only waitress there and spoke very little English.

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            We could tell it was a family-run place. It was small, but the walls were covered in love for El Salvador. The walls were a rusty orange color, along with some brick, with ornaments and pictures hung all around. There were El Salvadoran maps, framed paintings, figurines of praying Catholics and caballeros on horses, and the El Salvadoran Coat of Arms. I felt bad thinking this, but the Latin soap opera that was playing on a small TV in the corner made the place almost stereotypical. I could instantly tell that I would not be eating Central/South American food—I would be eating El Salvadoran food.

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            Alejandra brought out some corn chips and salsa when we sat down around our circular table. The chips were warm and you could tell they weren’t from a bag—they were crisp, but some that weren’t baked all the way had a softer texture which was still delicious. We ordered a couple bowls of guacamole as we scanned the menu trying to figure out what we wanted for dinner. Everything was in Spanish. We knew what fajitas were and guessed that plátano was a plantain—but what the heck was a papusa? Since we didn’t know what papusas were, we all decided to get some—especially because the reviews raved about them. I ordered the fried plantains with sour cream, refried beans, a zucchini and cheese papusa and a bean and cheese papusa.

 Homemade Nachos & Salsa

Homemade Nachos & Salsa

 Bean & Zuchinni Papusas

Bean & Zuchinni Papusas

            Before Alejandra left to put our orders in, we asked if the food we ordered would be enough. Believe me, it was plenty! Everything—especially the fried plantains—were so abundant!

My friend, Lindsay, was a little nervous about ordering the plantains, but she promised she’d try one of mine. This resembled the neophobia that Addessi wrote about in her article. Children don’t like to try new things unless their friends are eating the same item (2005). It turns out she loved them! They were so warm and sweet. Then my papusas and refried beans came out. I normally don’t like refried beans, but I saw a family next to us eating them so I figured I’d try them again. They were delicious! I asked Alejandra how they made them and (I think) she said she used only red beans instead of pinto or black beans.

 Plantains

Plantains

My only regret is that I ordered only two papusas instead of three! They were so delicious. Each looked like a pancake the size of the palm of my hand. The corn tortillas were moist, fluffy, and not too greasy. They came with a picante-like sauce and cortido (pickle cabbage similar to slaw but without mayonnaise). The acidity of the sauce and cortido balanced really well with the heaviness of the pupusa. What made the meal even better was that it was under ten dollars!

meal

Our waitress was nice but didn’t speak much because of her difficulty with the English language. I tried to ask her a few questions about the cuisine, but I didn’t want to pressure her to answer. She explained that all the ingredients are very fresh and everything is made on the spot. Her family moved to North Carolina from El Salvador. She said that diverse people visit this restaurant, but mostly people from Central and South America.

I learned a lot about the culture of El Salvador by participating in the cuisine at El Carbonero. When I experienced my meal, I wanted to understand the differences between El Salvadoran food and Mexican food, which is what I am more used to. I also wanted to determine if the food and atmosphere would be affected by American culture. First, it seems like a very family-oriented culture—just like Mexican (and really Latin American) culture. At least four families were there with four or more members each. The table was full of food and everyone was sharing. This shows that food emphasizes social and familial activities. Like many other Central American countries, the food is based on maize, vegetables, meat, and tortillas. Even though the cuisine bases were similar when it came to guacamole and fajitas, I’ve never seen papusas or fried plantains on a Mexican menu.

The cultural problem is that many Mexican restaurants in the United States are very affected by American culture. Instead of the traditional slower-paced environment that focuses on the enjoyment of food, many big Mexican restaurants must speed up their service and cooking in order to appease their fast-paced American customers. Luckily, El Carbonero is such a small, dive restaurant that it has been able to keep its authenticity. It’s such an intimate restaurant that our checks were written on ripped pieces of notebook paper and we had to pay in cash only. Yes, the menu had chicken fingers on it for kids, but it was also saturated in Latin American food and verbiage.

Religion also presented itself during our meal. Like in many Latin American societies, the Catholic Church is a very prominent religious institution in El Salvador. The walls displayed many relics of the Catholic Church such as Rosary beads and images of men and women praying with Rosary beads. Prayer before a meal is a very prominent Catholic tradition. There was a family that received their meal while we were waiting for ours and they immediately held hands, bowed their heads and prayed.

Food is extremely important to a culture. Unfortunately, in our society here in the United States, food is not always fully utilized for social and familial activities. We go out to dinner on special occasions and expect speedy service and constant attention from the waiter. This is drastically different from the religious, social mealtime witnessed at El Carbonero. Rozin spoke about this a bit in his article, Development in the Food Domain. He said that family preferences of food do stem from cultural aspects. However, the members of the family may have distinct preferences within that cultural sphere (1990). In other words, each member of an El Salvadorian family may agree to go to El Carbonero together, but they may order different things because of their unique tastes. The American culture uses food for socialization, but not to the degree that El Salvadoran culture does. Food defines so much in a culture that it is impossible to ignore.

My critical question related to how globalization and Americanization affected the cuisine at El Carbonero. It was very easy to see from the menu typed in Spanish, the relaxed environment, and the Central/South American families that Americanization touched El Carbonero very little compared to Mexican restaurants in the area like La Cocina.

I loved finding this hidden gem with outstanding food and large portions. El Carbonero has the potential to become my favorite ethnic restaurant in this entire area. I enjoy trying new foods, but it’s a bit scary when you can’t even read the menu! Because of this field report, I ordered the papusas instead of the fajitas and now I have such a greater an appreciation of El Salvadoran food and culture.

Works Cited

Addessi, E., A. T. Galloway, E. Visalberghi, and L. L. Birch. "Specific social influences on the acceptance of novel foods in 2-5-year-old children." Appetite 45, no. 3 (2005): 264-71.

Rozin, Paul. "Development in the Food Domain." Developmental Psychology 26, no. 4 (1990): 555-562.