|Maria Piedad Cano, "The Sainted Arepa Lady" (foreground) at her cart|
If there’s such a thing as a living legend in street food, it’s Maria Piedad Cano, “The Sainted Arepa Lady.” Keep your fingers crossed, she may be making an appearance in San Francisco, maybe at La Cocina's 3rd Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival on August 20. The possibility was raised by the @Arepalady herself on Twitter when she recently tweeted “Not out tonight, sorry! Oh soon to sell arepas in San Francisco, CA for a day?” When I speculated aloud (well, a-screen) on Twitter that this might have something to do with the Street Food Festival, I got a sort of confirmation from @streetfoodsf (spokestweeter for the Festival) with the terse response “Might have some truth.” Hmmm.
It was none other than Jim Leff, the enigmatic founder of chowhound.com, who beatified a Jackson Heights, NY street vendor and brought her to the attention of netizens and eventually of the mainstream media. In a piece called "The Sainted Arepa Lady" in the early 1990’s, Leff said:
I don't know her name; such knowledge would detract from my appreciation of her as an archetype. While I speak pretty decent Spanish, I've never been able to fully follow her conversation, but it doesn't matter. I go when I'm feeling blue, stand under her umbrella, and feel a healing calm wash over me as she brushes the sizzling corn cakes with butter. Zen master-like in her complete absorption in the task, she grills the things with infinite patience and loving care.
We now know not only her name, but some details of her life. She was formerly a lawyer and a judge in her native Colombia, but gave that up when it became too risky a profession. She’s in New York only in the warmer months, wintering in Colombia: she vends her wares only on Friday and Saturday nights, from 10:00 or 11:00 PM to dawn. Unlike other vendors who favor subway station locations, she sets up at 79th and Roosevelt, in proximity to a string of night clubs.
Despite her hours and location, what the Arepa Lady deals is anything but “drunk food.” She’s the queen of arepas in arepa-rich Queens, home to around 80,000 Colombians. Two types of exquisite arepas come off her griddle: arepas de queso, the more familiar thick circular cheese-stuffed corn cakes, and the sweeter arepas de choclo, which are made from ground fresh corn in a crepe-like batter and are folded in two after topping with farmer’s cheese.
I was lucky to find Maria Piedad Cano at her cart at around 11:00 in the evening on May 29, 2010 (thanks, EXIF data!). I had earlier stuffed my gut at the Golden Mall in Flushing, a few stops down the 7 line, and only had room for one arepa; I chose the more exotic (to me) arepa de choclo and downed it while it was still hot off the griddle. I have been craving another one ever since, as well as one of her arepas de queso. If the Sainted Arepa Lady does indeed show up at the Street Food Festival this year, some other vendors are going to be moved down my dance card.