How the Arepa Took Over the World, then Died at Home
By Alejandro Puyana
May was a terrible month for Venezuela: the worst in a string of bad months in the worst year in a string of bad years. Amid the carnage, the lowly arepa is facing a paradox. The sine qua non of Venezuelan foods, Venezuelans’ pan de cada día, has gone global… just as it perishes back home.
Venezuelans eat a lot of arepas. Or at least we used to. Often described in foreign media as a “corn patty” (a horrible way to put it —yuck!), it’s really the stuff Venezuelan childhood memories are made of —soft and succulent, crunchy and deeply satisfying… Man, I could go for one right now.
“Venezuelans’ pan de cada día, has gone global… just as it perishes back home.”
It’s one of the few pre-colonial food traditions left in modern Venezuela and, certainly, the most pervasive. Indigenous women in the region that now makes up Panama, Colombia and Venezuela would soak maize kernels, which would later be husked, dried and ground into a fine flour. They would mix that flour with water to create balls of dough and then flatten them into disks. The pale-golden disks would then go on a budare, a hot clay surface that would toast the cakes on both sides, but leave the inside fluffy and moist.
José de Acosta, a sixteenth century Jesuit explorer and philosopher, wrote that the budare was like a sacrificial stone for the rite of the first bread. That’s what the arepa was for indigenous people. I wouldn’t quite call the contemporary Venezuelans’ thing for arepas religious, but it’s not far from it either.
For Venezuelan homemakers in the fifties (and in richer houses, for their maids) making an arepa was not very different than for the indigenous women back in pre-colonial times. It required time, sweat and labor; soaking corn for at least 24-hours, laboriously washing each kernel to husk it, grinding it with massive mortars and pestles. The only thing that was easier was procuring the corn. I imagine that back then “Vamos a comer arepa, mi amor” began more than a few spousal spats.
But in 1954 an engineer called Luis Caballero Mejías — a real renaissance man criollo and one of the men responsible for bringing technical higher education to Venezuela — introduced patent #5176 in the Ministry of Commerce and single-handedly changed Venezuelan culinary customs — and arguably Venezuelan identity — forever. He devised machinery and an industrial process that transformed arepa making into a space-age “add water y listo“. He registered the brand La Arepera, and felt the business was un tiro al piso: “I knew the business was good, the flour was good, and therefore the result couldn’t be bad,” he wrote in a letter to his investors in 1954.
“If Naples had been a thriving land of opportunity, you’d never have heard of Pizza.”
Someone else really liked the idea. When Mr. Caballero fell ill and needed money, one Lorenzo Mendoza Fleury — in a capitalist stroke of genius — bought the patent for 275,000 bolívares. It might not sound like much in revolución bolívares, but it was the equivalent of paying almost $750,000 dollars today. There’s plenty of credit to give to Empresas Polar, however. They perfected the industrial process, especially the drying and toasting portion of it, and tackled the monumental task of convincing 1960’s women of the quality of this magic flour. They sent out thousands of women to the streets of the biggest cities in the country, dressed up in costume, to show homemakers how to make arepas the modern way. The slogan “se acabó la piladera” took over and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before the hunger season set in, peak consumption of precooked corn flour was estimated at 30 kg per person per year. At 25 arepas per kilo, that comes to 750 arepas per person a year. You read that right. Give Venezuelans the chance and they’ll eat two arepas every day of the year (you still need to take into account bollitos, hallacas, empanadas and other kind of foods made with corn flour; but, trust me: it’s still a lot of arepas).
The regime has decimated even that, of course. The National Assembly’s Special Commission on Agricultural Crisis calculated that this year’s consumption will drop to 15.5 kilos per person, mostly due to corn shortages. The days of “está buena, dame otra” have gone the way of the dodo.
But as it dies at home, the arepa is experiencing its moment under the sun around the world. Of course, we’re not the only disaster-struck people this has happened to: the fall of Saigon was a tragedy for untold numbers of Vietnamese people… but also the reason you can get incredible Phở just about everywhere now. And trust me, if Naples had been a thriving land of opportunity, you’d never have heard of Pizza.
We’re not that different: scatter us around the world, and we’ll bring arepas with us. When Caracas Arepa Bar opened in Manhattan in 2003, New Yorkers couldn’t tell an arepa from a cachapa or a patacón — it stood as the lone showcase of the Venezuelan arepa in the big apple. Today, with over twenty Venezuelan restaurants in the city (and growing), the arepa — and Venezuelan culinary tradition in general — has made its mark on the international culinary scene.
I’ve traveled to arepa places in Barcelona and in San Francisco, and they all taste like home. The fillings might change: manchego cheese and iberian ham instead of carne mechada and queso amarillo, or cantonese marinated pork belly instead of Diablitos —but then, putting crazy things inside an arepa is all in the spirit of the thing. We tend to forget, but the first “portu” to put chicken-avocado salad inside an arepa and call it a “Reina Pepiada” (a classic today) was committing what back then was seen as a culinary provocation, at best, or a sacrilege at worst.
The arepa itself, the dough that is and will always be water, corn and salt, remains the same. It still has the indentations of the fingers that pressed them —and for any Venezuelan living abroad, it will always taste like what we’ve left behind.
I’m no longer surprised when a chef on a cooking show makes an arepa and wins, or when Arepa Zone wins best food truck in Washington D.C. for the second year in a row. When I moved to Austin in 2006, the only place for an arepa was in my kitchen. Today I have my pick of locations (they’re never as good as mine, and none will ever be as good as my mom’s).
On the streets of Lima, Peru, you have young Venezuelan professionals, once middle-class, selling arepas to the Peruvian working class (they love them, by the way). You have American moms and personal trainers blogging about the new gluten-free “it” food. And you can’t take four steps in Miami without smelling arepas on a grill.
But, perhaps, the Venezuelan arepa’s biggest coup came in… Colombia. Colombians, of course, have their own arepa-making tradition: sad little flattened and cracked things with toppings piled absurdly on top, rather than stuffed inside, como Dios manda. Yet, even in Colombia there’s a bit of a craze for arepas rellenas —i.e. proper, Venezuelan-style arepas, with the filling inside, where it belongs.
The arepa has arrived. You’re welcome, world.
That is no consolation for the millions of Venezuelans who are struggling to feed their families today: standing in line for hours to get their price-controlled bag of corn flour, or haggling on the black market and spending fifteen times as much. Some of those people will join the bolivarian diaspora soon enough. The lucky ones will take planes to Miami or Bogotá and join relatives or friends, use their university degrees to get jobs at Best Buy. The less fortunate are starting to take rafts to Curaçao or buses to Boa Vista, fleeing hunger. The outright unlucky —and the stubborn— have to stay. For them, the arepa has become not a symbol of everyday sustenance, but a luxury.