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Remembering Pancakes Past: Colombian Food Nostalgia on the Barre-Montpelier Road

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Claudia, left, and Jhuly Alvarez at their restuarant, Arandas. Photo by John Lazenby.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how smell and taste become memory generators? For me, popcorn and the movies, vinegar and Easter eggs, burned pretzels and walking in Manhattan in winter, sawdust and my father in his shop, Aqua Velva and my first date… from the first whiff I am immediately taken back in time. (On the flip side, the cloying sweetness of Southern Comfort evokes an unfortunate experience in youth.) 

A new restaurant on the Barre-Montpelier road offered me a chance to taste and smell an item that was my daily treat 50 years ago when I was an exchange student in Bogota, Colombia:  the humble arepa. It’s a cornmeal pancake, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, often served with a filling but delicious all on its own, or with butter. For the first time since I tearfully left Bogota and my adopted family, I saw arepas on the menu, and right here in central Vermont!  

Arandas Mexican Cuisine shares a building with a garden shop (formerly Legare’s) on the Barre-Montpelier Road, right next to Dunkin Donuts. It isn’t fancy: a picnic table in front, and a small indoor space with a few places to sit. Now, along with offering Gifford’s ice cream, a mother-and-daughter team have started cooking traditional Central and South American dishes such as tamales, chimichangas, enchiladas, and up on the blackboard at the end of the list: Arepas!

The cook, Claudia Alvarez, who is from Colombia, and her daughter Jhuly moved to Vermont with family two years ago from Mexico, where they cooked at home. Although there’s not much advertising, and hardly a sign, the word is getting out that they offer much more than the bland Tex-Mex offerings elsewhere. They chose the name of the restaurant, Arandas, after the town in Mexico famous for tequila, but that, wisely, is not one of the offerings on the chalkboard. On the warm spring morning when I arrived, families were ordering the creemees. 

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Right away, I ordered her arepas and, while waiting, conjured up my teenage remembrances of Bogota 50 years ago. After the school day was over, on my walk to the bus stop, I could smell the charcoal on the grill and get my mouth ready for a hot arepa, slightly burned and covered with butter. That was my daily culinary treat after a long school day struggling to learn chemistry in Spanish. An even more welcome treat was getting a daily dose of laughter and love from Senor Almeida, the sweet old man who sold the hot arepas. I used to prepare sentences beforehand that I could say to him as my fluency improved, and he would gasp in mock astonishment. After some time, he became Uncle/Tio Luiz, who told me jokes, asked about my family, and picked just the right arepa to warm me.  

Where are the arepas of yesteryear? I had stored that memory away for the past 50 years, but it all came into sweet focus the minute that arepa arrived with my order last week from Claudia Alvarez. The only thing lacking was the burn marks; the addition was melted cheese, which is traditional in Colombia. I didn’t experience an epiphany like Proust eating a cookie dipped in a cup of tea, but I’m grateful for recovering the sweet memory of Tio Luiz Almeida 50 years ago and his kindness to a lonely girl far from home.

Linda Radtke lives in Middlesex.