Editor’s Note: In a follow-up to our conversations with Reina Soler of Solber Pupusas and Cesar Fuentes of the Red Hook Ballfield Food Vendors, Leanne Tory-Murphy met up with Fernando Martinez of Country Boys to talk about the origins of his famous huaraches.
“It’s not city food — it is food for farmers, for people who make their huarache to take with them to the fields to work…It’s country food.” -Fernando Martinez
by Leanne Tory-Murphy
Fernando Martinez is the owner of the Country Boys food truck, which sells traditional Mexican fare each weekend at the Red Hook Ballfields. Without fail, hungry patrons form lines to wait their turn to partake of fresh huaraches – corn filled tortillas filled with ground beans and topped with meat, salsas, salad, cheese and crema, the Mexican version of sour cream.hu
The huarache is named after the traditional flat leather sandals worn by many farmers in Mexico. Fortunately, they taste much better than old shoes, and campesinos have long taken them to the fields for lunch to sustain them during long work days.
Fernando has often thrown his fate to the wind. When I met up with him on a recent Sunday morning he was in good spirits, seemingly amused by where life has taken him. His success with Country Boys is certainly a far cry from his early days in New York when he and his wife worked in a clothing factory by day and planned their escape by night.
Can you describe where you are from?
I am from the state of Puebla, Mexico. Puebla is the in the Central Southern part of the Mexican republic. It’s a state — not very poor, but divided. The northern part has a good, beautiful climate, but the southern part is more dry, arid — a little problematic for the people who have to grow food. Above all it’s very dry. I am from, well…the southern part has chosen me. More than anything, agriculture suffers because there’s not a lot of water.
I’ve experienced a little bit of everything. I was born in the countryside, at a farm where we raised little animals. I know a little bit about what agriculture is. By necessity, for my studies, I had to leave to go to the city. I studied at the state capital. We could say I know the countryside very well. How to live with nature, animals and everything….yes.
What did you study?
I studied architecture. But because I was young and inexperienced I went to live with my wife. I left in the middle…I never finished!
Yes! We had to emigrate, because we didn’t have professions. Because without a profession, we couldn’t live there, my wife and I. We were young and without work experience. So we emigrated and came here and began to make plans to figure out how to move forward.
Did you come directly to New York?
To New York directly, yes. We already had a lot of family, both my wife and I. She had her siblings and I had my siblings as well. So we came here directly.
How was the experience of coming from an agricultural place to the big city?
Well, it was completely different. When I was studying, my parents, although they were not rich, they provided for me, I was their son. I would call them to say “I need this” or “I need that.” I was not accustomed to working, nor was my wife. We were just students, we would go home to ask for money and then go back to the city.
Coming here we found that earning money was hard for us. Very hard. But we accustomed ourselves, we had to look at the reality of our life, and we had to work and look for a way to move forward little by little. And we weren’t going to do that by earning the minimum wage that we were receiving at the time. So we worked in the factory during the day, and after we looked for alternatives, and started a small business, and then we began working here (at the ballfields).
What type of factory were you working in?
We have almost always worked in seamstressing, making clothes. We worked in a lot of different places, but most of the time in the Navy Yard, an area that has a lot of factories. The two of us, we worked together, always — almost always together.
And there you had the idea to start this business?
Yes. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives, but we knew that we didn’t want to pass our lives working in a factory. We were searching for a way, a business, something to do, and by chance we came across this park. We came here with no more than a table — a grill, that’s it. And my wife and I alone. And little by little we grew, and added more tables more grills.
How did you find out about this park?
By chance! A friend of mine sold ices out of a push-cart, he left 5th Avenue, a more commercial area and came here to sell. When he came here he found a lot of soccer players and a lot of people, and he began to come here every weekend and sold quite a bit! And he said to me, “You know what? In this park, we could use more. You should try with food.” And I said, “Let’s go, we can try!” And here we are…
And all this without ever having cooked before?
We started with the most traditional food of Mexico…tacos. Only tacos. And this it what initially helped us earn a little money. Tacos with three types of meat: beef, pork and chicken, that’s it. Then, as the years passed we began to experiment with quesadillas, simpler things, because the huarache is a little more difficult to make.
After about 5 years of experience, that’s when we began to try with the huarache, and thank god, because this is really what lifted us up. Because the people were tired of eating tacos that they make with factory-produced tortillas. People don’t want this, they want something fresh, something that is cooked right there. So they liked the quesadilla and the huarache — the tortilla is made right there and put on to cook, so they know it is something fresh. This is what made us succeed.
Is the huarache a traditional food in Puebla?
It was born between Puebla and Mexico City. But it’s not city food — it is food for farmers, for people who make their huarache to take with them to the fields to work. There they heat it up. It’s country food.
The huarache…well the only difference between a huarache and a tortilla is that it has ground beans mixed with the corn dough. The corn flour is mixed with water to make a very smooth paste, the same is done with the beans. When making a huarache one puts the bean paste inside of the corn dough, flattens it out and puts it on the grill. This is the huarache.
It’s not rocket science, it’s simple. Well, it’s a little difficult to make because you have to be careful with cooking the beans and dough together. You have to cook it as fast as possible, otherwise it’s no good. You also have to be careful because it’s fragile and could break, because the beans and dough have different consistencies. Making a tortilla with just corn dough is a little more manageable. It’s somewhat complicated, but with a little practice you can learn quickly.
So who taught you how to make it?
In reality, no one! We just started to try it — myself, my wife and her sister. We prepared a good quantity of dough and beans. As I was saying before, they broke. We threw them away…they were hard to make, because they are more complicated. After two or three weeks of practicing they came out better.
And you did this in your house?
No, right here! Right here, yes. Out of every five huaraches, two good ones came out and three bads. And little by little we got better, and now we can do the work quickly. We suffered in the beginning as well, because this was a bad area. There was a lot of delinquency: drugs, prostitution, theft, vandalism. All of us vendors, and the soccer players helped us to clean up this area.
If someone tried to rob somebody we would all get together, the vendors and the soccer players, to confront them, and they left! It used to be that no one would enter this area after 5pm, there were many abandoned houses, super-cheap, no one wanted to buy them. Now the prices have risen to double or triple what they were, now it is very expensive.
Do you live near this neighborhood?
No not very close. In Bushwick. About 20 minutes from here.
The countryside of Puebla is very different from Brooklyn.
Yes, in Puebla where I was born it still has not changed very much. One can go out into the narrow streets near to the town — the majority are still farmers, you see cows, different animals in the street.
The thing with here is that if you want to be in the countryside you can drive in a car, thirty minutes. There are beautiful parks as well. Normally we go to New Jersey, different areas.
Do you think you will go back or stay here?
I want to stay here a little longer. When I retire then I will go. My dream would be to live 6 months in Mexico and 6 months here. By now my children are growing up, they are almost adults and it seems they would like a little business. I would like to open a restaurant in the future and leave this with them, to run the business, and then live a more restful life. Because it has really been a lot a lot of work. We have a small business, but it absorbs us completely. Just about every day we are cleaning the truck, fixing something…It’s a lot of work.
What is the thing you like most about Brooklyn?
The possibility for us to make a business. We are well-known here. You only have to say Red Hook Park, and they know us. We are vendors of traditional Mexican food and there are other who sell the traditional food of El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru…almost everyone sells the traditional food from the countryside of each country.
Did you ever think you would get the recognition you have receieved? (Country Boys is a winner of the Vendy Award.)
I never imagined it. One has dreams (laughs). The idea was just to make a little money, to establish ourselves in a business, a restaurant. That was all. But we won and now at least people talk about us, they know us. After participating in the Vendy Awards people identify us, they know Country Boys. We have had a lot of luck, thank God. By participating in that event, it brought us a lot of popularity. And people know us more now.
How did you come up with the name Country Boys?
It was chance, once again (laughs). Because when they obligated us to change the way we were doing business (the City mandated a switch from tables to food trucks), we had to better the way it looked — we could no longer work in the open air, on the earth. We had to buy trucks. We tried to find a truck and we thought it would be something simple, but it was not simple because it’s quite expensive. So we began by looking for new trucks, but they were very expensive, so then we began looking at used trucks, and I found a truck like the one I would want, and it came with this name.
It was the name of the business that was there before: Country Boys. We thought a lot about changing the name, but “what name?” “What name?” And I thought, “Why don’t we just keep it like this?” And so I asked the man if he was going to continue using the name for his business, and he said “No, I am retiring the business. I am old. I want to rest. I am done with this truck, the name, and everything.’ And so we registered it with this name. We liked it.
Do you think he knows what kind of success you’ve had?
He lives in New Jersey. No, I don’t think so.
For more on the Red Hook Ballfield Vendors, check out our interviews with Reina Soler of Soler Pupusas and with Ballfield founder Caesar Fuentes. You can visit the Red Hook Ballfields and try some of the amazing food every Saturday and Sunday on the corner of Clinton and Bay Streets, starting around 11:30 a.m.