The Flavor of Facebook: Discovering the wide world of home-cooked food on Facebook Marketplace

 

Facebook: It’s our daily dose of anxiety, immediately followed by “the 10 cutest dogs that will just make your day” on a loop. But amid the panic (and the distraction from the panic), we ignore the small four-paneled upper-right corner, where a whole world is teeming.

It’s called Facebook Marketplace, and for enterprising users, it’s a place where you can use your social network as a way to buy—among other things—homemade food in bulk. This isn’t DoorDash, but it falls within the law. Minnesota updated its “cottage food” laws in 2015 in order to free up the creation and sale of food made inside a home, where previously it was only allowed on farms and at markets.

Facebook Marketplace has many nooks and crannies within its categories, none of which are officially labeled “food.” Want some dumplings? Check home goods. Pho? That might be floating around the hobby section, next to a 50-pound bag of Lincoln Logs. Searching for food becomes a game of keywords and word-associations.

So, here we go: My chronicle of eating five “meals” off of Facebook Marketplace.

While hunting down food wasn’t the easiest or most organized task, the more I looked, the wider variety I saw. While a large portion of the food for sale was snack-focused, or in an otherwise easy-to-deliver format, there were also ingredients, salads, catering options and all manner of other food items. Most of the food I interacted with was breaded or baked for easy delivery, but there is much, much more out there to explore for the discerning Facebook explorer.

My first successful find was a batch of pierogi from Emily Rose Pormann, who runs Emma’s Pierogis on Facebook. I was lucky enough to be able to watch her make a batch after buying my first round for my dinner. I bought 24 (at $12 per dozen)—12 original (onion and garlic) and 12 bacon and cheddar flavored—and asked her how she got started on the Marketplace hustle.

Emily Rose Pormann, who runs Emma’s Pierogis on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Emily Rose Pormann, who runs Emma’s Pierogis on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

“I got inspired,” she said. “I know pierogis make me really happy, and they are comfort food and people love comfort food. Who doesn’t like potatoes? Who doesn’t like pasta? You put those things together into a perfect little potato pillow,” Pormann said.

She wasn’t wrong. A pierogi is one of those comfort foods that are hard to screw up, but difficult to master. With hand-drawn labels that include instructions, I boiled each silky dumpling, my mouth watering as I waited for them to float. Of the methods of cooking (boiling, baking, and frying) I found boiling to be the most delicious and effective. (I finished mine off in a pan with butter for a little crisp.) The end result was a delightfully silky pierogi, with a delicious balance of potato and flavor. The bacon and cheddar flavor were especially delicious.

“Honestly, it’s kind of the millennial hustle, to have a side gig,” she says. “Especially when you’re making something by hand and people appreciate it. I don’t do well with 9-to-5 jobs, it’s just not good for me.”

My next pickup was in St. Paul for empanadas de arroz con leche (rice pudding pastries). My contact had been sporadic, and as I squinted against the backlight of my phone trying to see how else to contact the seller, an address popped up with a time, followed by a simple “come.”

The scene at this single-story neighborhood home was almost reminiscent of an old-school diner on a Friday night. Cars quickly came and went, different people, calling to each other and walking up to the door, handing over cash, and walking away with a greasy brown paper bag. As I walked up, I said hello and saw into the house, where a group of women laughed and sat around a kitchen table with a giant serving tray in front of them, not looking as their hands zoomed in plastic gloves, putting together the empanadas de arroz con leche. I handed over my $10 and received my bag of five.

A bag of sugary empanadas bought on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A bag of sugar coated empanadas de arroz con leche purchased on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

I got back into my car, taking a bite of the dessert pastry, showering crystal sugar all over my front and floor (which is sure to stay there for six to eight years). It reminded me of a moist cake doughnut filled with a slightly almond-flavored rice pudding. It was well made, but not quite my cup of tea. As I munched on the pastry, I heard a laugh as someone saw me, my car light on, with rice pudding and sugar dripping over my beard, attempting to write my notes with one hand. I put my car in first and drove off for the evening.

Later in that same week, I got into contact with a listing I was particularly excited about. Sambusas (also known as samosas) are an appetizer that originated in the Middle East and Central Asia but have migrated across much of Asia and Africa—usually the fried or baked pastry is filled with spices, lentils, and/or meat. I was lucky enough to connect with Fatoumi, who was selling some particularly excellent looking specimens out of St. Paul. The listing said $35, which I thought was pretty steep, but I figured for such a treat, it made sense.

When I picked up the delivery from Fatoumi’s mother (she was at work) I saw why. Literally five-plus pounds of perfectly stuffed, deep-fried pastries overflowed from a veritable trough. I climbed back in my car, the intoxicating aroma swirling around the discarded Taco Bell wrappers on my floor, and I took a bite.

Before I tell you about my out-of-body experience, let me assure you that any pictures you try to find of sambusa will not come close to the beauty that was delivered to me. Perfect golden squares, packed into tin foil, delectably springy without losing their crunch. The shell was thick enough to back up the heavily spiced filling to give a pleasant balance, and the flavors of the lentils, chicken, curry, and cumin mingled to create a heavenly combination. I didn’t have a scale, but I think I ate at least three pounds before I left that parking lot.

The sambusa that led to writer Eli Radtke's out-of-body experiece // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The sambusa that led to writer Eli Radtke’s out-of-body experiece // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Fatoumi was kind enough to talk about her process and experience via Facebook Messenger with me, although she wished for her last name to be omitted. Her mother made sambusa when they lived in Yemen, and it was Fatoumi’s absolute favorite dish that she looked forward to.

“I learned how to make them growing up and I wanted to share my cooking on Facebook because It lets me choose my own time,” Fatoumi said. “I’m a full-time nursing student and I do medical coding for work. My schedule is pretty full but I enjoy cooking and sharing it with others—[it’s] what makes me happy.”

After sputtering awake from my food coma, I traveled up to Roseville to swap $25 in a parking lot for a Styrofoam to-go box filled with chicken empanadas the size of my face, with a robust chimichurri sauce to boot.

These flakey El Salvadorian delights surprised me. Other empanadas I had tried over the years fell victim to that hard, thin, shell that gets crisped up in the pan. The outside of these was golden brown, soft without giving way, and went down more like a croissant than anything else. Somehow, the shell still managed to keep a surprising amount of juice from cooking, as evidenced by the front of my shirt after driving away from the pickup. The chimichurri sauce was a little too acidic, but the empanadas were delicious enough to be eaten plain, and at 12 for $25, they warmed up perfectly for lunch the next day.

Writer Eli Radtke picking up a bag of Pâté chaud (or bánh patê sô) purchased on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Writer Eli Radtke picking up a bag of Pâté chaud (or bánh patê sô) purchased on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

My next pickup involved a similar concept to the empanada, but the Vietnamese version. Pâté chaud (or bánh patê sô) is a puff pastry filled with sauteed onions, spices, garlic, and meat (ground pork is traditional, but chicken and beef are commonly found). I had never heard of the snack, but I won’t soon forget it. The puff pastry on the outside had a delightful brown to it, which added a crunch before hitting the meatball-like center. I was so lost in the flavor, I didn’t realize I had also eaten the wrapper on the bottom until I started in on the second one. My only complaint would be that there was a little more puff pastry than filling for my taste. But, at $3 dollars each, the price was right.

On my pickups, and in browsing the Marketplace, I did notice that a large portion of the food I interacted with was in the vein of “Dumplings of the World.” While I don’t think I even scratched the surface of everything that’s out there, I do think that most cultures have a breaded, ready-to-eat style of food that is immensely popular, especially for interactions like this. It’s an easy way to make something delicious and mobile at the same time (unfortunately I think the American version of this is the Hot Pocket, so we have a ways to go.) I loved the meals I had eaten so far. But I was about to experience something on another level entirely.

Enter: the pupusa. Imagine a warm, crisply fried, fresh corn tortilla—then stuff it with pork, chicken and cheese, with a delicious vinegar and jalapeño slaw over the top. I knew about pupusas before this story—I had even tried to make them myself—but my mangled disks of sadness were far from satisfying. I wanted the real thing.

Writer Eli Radtke visits a house to purchase food he found for sale on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Writer Eli Radtke visits a house to purchase food he found for sale on Facebook Marketplace // Photo by Daniel Murphy

After running down leads and dead ends for a couple of weeks, I finally connected with a seller on the Marketplace. The only problem was that they only spoke Spanish, and the only other language I have ever studied was a couple semesters of German. But, after a couple days of communicating via Google Translate, we nailed down a time. (God bless this woman because I probably sounded like a 3-year-old, trying to make sure Google Translate didn’t put words in my mouth. ‘Hello. Five pupusa. Where meet?’ ‘Chicken, yes. Thanks. 7pm?’)

When I handed over the $11 for five golden-brown disks of delight, the woman (who asked not to be named) smiled at my attempts at Spanish and simply said “you’re welcome” before closing the door. Oof.

Now, I don’t say this lightly, but I found God wrapped in that crisp corn shell as I was sitting on the side of the road that evening. The savory flavor of warm, flat-top, crisped corn exterior with a juicy, cheesy pork filling inside was worth any amount of travel I would have to endure to find these again. I bought five, but I think I probably could have eaten 50.

In total, I spent $147 (for those of you counting at home I went back for more pierogi from Emily later, for photoshoot and comfort purposes, and the ‘meals’ I got often stretched into 2-3 meals) to eat like a king. And I barely scratched the surface.

In between people selling their childhood stuffed animals, dental services and “collector figurines” in bulk, in Facebook Marketplace you find people who have a culinary talent that they want to share, and a passion for sharing their experience through food. And based on my small sampling from the driver’s seat of my car, it’s a strange, hidden world worth diving into.

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Editor’s Note: This article was researched and written before the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. While the practices described herein are likely no riskier than eating food prepared in any friend or family member’s kitchen, we strongly encourage readers to stay apprised of any food-related guidelines set forth by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

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