- Courtesy Of V Smiley
- Pepián de pollo
Wendy Girón could not stop beaming as she welcomed a recent visitor into the modest Vergennes home she bought earlier this year. The freshly renovated kitchen boasted sleek wood cabinetry and a stainless steel stove with a large hood vent. "I designed my kitchen," she said proudly.
Girón, 43, had not yet put the new kitchen to full use, but it would soon hold fragrant food from her native Guatemala, such as pepían stew enriched with ground pumpkin and sesame seeds, and a fried bean paste called frijoles negros volteados.
Not only will the kitchen be the heart of Girón's home, it will also be a stable base for her catering business, La Chapina. The name is a colloquial term for a Guatemalan woman, Girón explained during an interview translated by her eldest daughter, Briggette, a first-year Middlebury College student.
In 2019, Girón and her two daughters, then 11 and 13, made a harrowing 10-day trek north to cross the Arizona border into the United States. After unsuccessfully applying three times for a visa, the single parent said she felt she had no choice but to come anyway.
Despite holding a college degree in business administration, Girón had lost her government job. "I had to come and look for better opportunities for myself and my daughters," she said.
Earnings from La Chapina — along with countless hours of babysitting and cleaning houses — enabled Girón to buy her two-bedroom manufactured home. The family is working with a lawyer to seek legal status.
Briggette and Nina, now 18 and 16, respectively, help their mother cook and vend at the Bristol and Vergennes farmers markets and also cater. In June, La Chapina started bimonthly pop-ups at Minifactory in Bristol. The November 10 dinner will include a translator-facilitated conversation.
Girón spoke with Seven Days about why she started cooking for money, how Guatemalan food differs from Mexican and what's on the November menu.
You had not cooked as a job before coming to the United States, right?
No. But in Guatemala, and in my family, you must be a good cook to be a good woman. I grew up cooking. I have cooking in my blood because my grandma — that's how she used to support the family.
When we got to Vermont in July 2020, I tried to get a job on a farm, but they wanted only men. Undocumented women who don't speak English have to kind of figure it out by themselves. One of the teachers at the girls' school in Bristol wanted to try my food, so I started making some and selling it.
How do you describe Guatemalan food?
- Melissa Pasanen
- Wendy Girón cooking at Minifactory
In Guatemala, we do have tacos, but they don't taste the same. We don't identify with tacos.
My grandmother cooked three meals a day, and each one was delicious and different, although we always had fresh, hot corn tortillas. A favorite memory was rellenitos: a fried empanada with dough made from plantains and stuffed with beans sweetened with Nutella or with cacao. We mostly used red beans.
Pepían is one of our main dishes. I make it for my daughters. It is a mix of vegetables like güisquil [chayote], green beans, carrots and mushrooms, meat, and a "salsa," which is called recado. It is very nutritious with pumpkin and sesame seeds, tomatoes, onions, garlic, bell pepper, tomatillos and cilantro. I do it in a molcajete, or you can blend it in a blender.
Our food is not spicy. If someone wants something spicy, they add it to their food, not cook it in the food.
What can people expect to eat and hear on November 10?
I will cook like I would at home. We will have two types of beans: red with chorizo and what we call Guatemalan caviar that is black beans blended and then fried, constantly stirring and flipping them. I'll make homemade cheese, like queso fresco, and fried plantains. And we are making chuchitos: little steamed tamales of masa stuffed with vegetables or chicken. Both are seasoned with our recado, which we use for everything.
For dessert, we will have a classic Guatemalan cake called drunk cake. I bought rum that we make in my country. The cake is very light so it can absorb the honey and rum. Between the layers and on top, we make something called manjar with more rum and honey, cornstarch, milk and cinnamon.
I am very interested in having a conversation because I want people to get to know Guatemala. I absolutely love Mexican culture and food, but I am not Mexican. People all the time say, "Oh, Guatemala is in Mexico."
I also want them to know a bit about my family, and I want them to know that it's not easy to have a business as an undocumented person. My hope is to have a restaurant or a cafeteria someday. I'm not asking for people to give me things. I am asking them to try my food. Vermont has given me a lot of things. If they buy a meal, that's enough for me.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.