WOC in Food: Karla Vasquez of Salvi Soul
Karla Vasquez author of the forthcoming cookbook SalviSoul, shares her journey of healing through cooking and sharing stories of Salvadoran women who immigrated to the U.S.
You’ve been working on your book SalviSoul since 2015, what was the initial spark that led you to create it?
I started this project to stay connected with the food I grew up eating, but the moment I knew I had to start this project came to me during a conversation with my husband in 2015 -- I was cooking food and said, “It’d be great if I could do this book about Mama Lucy (my grandmother),” and he responded, “well, what’s stopping you?” I left the conversation and went to our bedroom and started crying. My husband heard me, so he came in and asked why I was crying. For the first time, I finally shared my doubt out loud -- “I’m afraid no one will care.”
Historically, this has been the case for Salvi’s --we left our country because no one cared about our safety in our own homes. In my eyes, there was enough proof that the world didn’t care. Ideas can be really beautiful things, but when you finally acknowledge this fear that comes with those ideas, it becomes so much more than we can sometimes handle. My husband confronted that fear with me, and then it became my mission. Once I gave myself the freedom and strength to share my fears out loud, I received an outpouring of connection and support from people I’d never met, and it’s meant so much.
Where did you first turn to, to find inspiration for the cookbook?
I wanted to find a specific recipe that I grew up eating as a child, so I started looking for cookbooks and I realized there were only two Salvi based cookbooks! I searched on Amazon and was able to find a total of five books --one was a children’s book and two were Salvi cookbooks (one in English, and one in Spanish). The Spanish one was published in 2004, which is not that long ago, and the English one was published in 2014, which was even more recent. I thought that was crazy! The price points for the English one was astronomical too because the author self published, and later sold out, so the resale value was super high I was able to find the book anywhere between $145-$320! At the time, I was literally hungry for this knowledge, and I ended up finding a copy for $110. The Spanish version was only $9, but it didn’t have any photos and the recipes weren’t very thorough. The English book didn’t even include the recipe that started my wanting to cook Salvi food, so I knew I had to find my answers elsewhere.
I realized I was going to have to ask my mom for the recipe, and her response was, “Por que no te fijas” — meaning, why don’t I pay attention [when she cooks]. I then turned to my grandma to help me and she agreed, but when I asked her to just tell me what the recipe is so I could write it down, she’d make me come with her and learn while we cooked. There were clashes of culture; I call it my westernization upbringing. I needed to hold something, I needed to document it, I needed to get these recipes on paper, and that’s why I started Salvi Soul. I started to talk to my grandma about the project and she was more receptive than my mom. We’d start talking about food and I started to realize, when we were going into the details of the recipe, she started to tell me the stories about how she learned the recipes, how she’d get in trouble, how she didn’t know the right ingredients, and all these stories sort of started to surface. I realized it was impossible to rescue a recipe without the stories behind it. I realized that the preservation of the story needs to be documented as well.
I always knew that I wanted to catalog my family’s story -- we have a lot of strong women, and I admire them all for various reasons. My grandmother Lucy had a very difficult life, and it was very difficult when she passed. She had this jovial attitude about life that drew me in to her, and I wanted to know why. What causes a person to be so optimistic, to be so funny when things suck? She had a hard life, but she loved dancing, and I started to realize that the more I listened to her story, it wasn’t so much a granddaughter learning about her grandmother, it was learning about a woman living her life when she didn’t have that many options. So I started doing the same thing with my mom and my tias. I also reached out to my two Salvi friends I had growing up and I asked them the same questions. Essentially, I started interviewing them and their moms, and began to realize I had about 6 or 7 interviews on my hands. I decided I was going to do this cookbook, but I couldn’t decide on a name because there were so many elements to it.
How did you eventually decide on the title, SalviSoul?
Never doubt when someone says to go work out and your answer will come to you! I finished a zumba class and it just hit me like a ton of bricks, Salvi Soul! It was very designated and so exciting! It has a name now, it’s real, it’s gonna happen. In 2017, I left my full-time job because I felt like it was time to devote my full attention to this project. I put a call out on the internet four days after I’d left my job and I told myself, if people find me, then I know that this resonates, and this will mean something more than just to me. I ended up getting so many messages, and was overwhelmed! It was so soothing and supportive thinking that there are people wanting to connect in this way. So in October of 2017, I set out my goal to interview 25 women, and by November I’d already had 24 interviews lined up!
How has leaving your job to pursue writing SalviSoul been for you?
A little tricky! I’ve always worked for non-profits and so I had done some freelance writing, hosting cooking classes, doing odd jobs like translating documents — so somehow every month, [my partner and I] made it work. But when I put in my two weeks notice, I felt so depressed and so sad that I didn’t have a job lined up, but I also just knew that wasn’t the place for me anymore. After I left my job and we were really thinking about the project, a huge sign came to me that this was the right decision. I had worked on a commercial that same year, and the day I put my 2 weeks notice, I came home to find I had received mail from that company, and it was a check for 3 months worth of salary! It took the air out of my body! We budgeted like nobody’s business! Even though I was working a lot on the website, making connections, and applying for grants, I wasn’t getting paid. I had these reserves —when you decide to do something, it will be scary, you might think you’re gonna die, you might even get close to that but it’s also exciting!
Can you talk about your interview process, and if the if the women your were interviewing were eager to tell their stories?
I wanted to make it clear right away that this was going to be 25 stories, and that I wasn’t only documenting the recipes. I didn’t want to barge in and expect a recipe right away. I wanted to let these women know I’m here for them to get to know me, and we’re gonna talk over time and I’m gonna learn about them and document their recipe. I’m not here to take anything from them, other than getting to know them, sharing their stories and recipes. I was very careful not to pressure any of the women since these stories are sensitive and the ethics of storytelling are very important. It has to be on their timeline when they’re ready. Once the trust has been established, they get to know me and the project as well, there are now over twenty families that are part of this legacy and I feel so special about it all.
How can people support and engage with SalviSoul in person?
Folks can support and engage with SalviSoul by following on social media @salvisoul (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) and signing up for our newsletter on salvisoul.com. The newsletter is a great way to stay connected as it includes upcoming events like cooking classes.
Karla’s Upcoming Classes:
Authentic Salvadoran Quesadilla Cooking Class