The underground business of homemade cooking is thriving in Miami — and it’s thanks to the social media gray market.
Craigslist, OfferUp, Letgo and Facebook Marketplace are just a few of the local sites and apps where South Floridians can get their fixes of regional specialties, be it Guatemalan espumillas or Italian tiramisu.
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It’s not just sweets either. Argentine empanadas, Cuban arroz imperial, Jamaican patties, and Nicaraguan tortillas all within a 15-minute drive of my Coconut Grove home.
Buying food from home cooks is nothing new. (As a kid, we used to get trays of still-warm mandel bread during the Jewish holidays from Mrs. Feinberg in North Miami Beach, and later raspberry jam from Mrs. Warren in the Adirondacks.)
But make no mistake, it is against the rules.
The Fine Print
All the local selling sites strictly prohibit the sale of foodstuff. OfferUp’s online rules explain: “The sale of homemade prepared food is subject to regulatory guidelines and often requires a permit. Because we can’t enforce these restrictions, prepared food is not allowed.”
LetGo reiterates: “It doesn’t matter how good your cooking is, food and other related food products are not allowed.”
Still, ten seconds on any of these local sites yields a bounty of homemade goodness. You have to know what you are looking for since there is no food category. Search by item and zip code instead. At least for Cuban specialties, I’ve found 33012 is a good place to start. It helps to hablar español.
The most ubiquitous item is flan. You can find dozens of them in every variety. Some are decorated with Halloween candies, canned fruit and crushed Oreos. Dominican style or Puerto Rican.
No matter what I’m buying, I look for sellers who have had the most sales and positive reviews. Plus, I keep their phone numbers in case they disappear from the site as “Mari” did after OfferUp pulled her listing. (In order to protect the identities of these culinary scofflaws, I have changed their names here.)
Check their online rating
Sometimes sellers flake out. Like the time I ordered a pavlova for a friend’s going away party, but the seller called a few hours before and said she didn’t have time to make it because her boyfriend invited her to the Keys.
Remember, these are not professionals, and sometimes it shows.
Other times, however, I have been so thrilled not just with the quality of the goods but also with the people I have met. I spent an hour recently looking at old cookbooks with Yanet and her mother Ines who recently started selling their classic flan de queso and wacky poke cakes from their Coral Terrace home.
Another accomplished sugar smith, Marlena, is from Venezuela. She makes individual flans as well as other sweets to order.
Homemade and affordable
Of course, you can always order similar things from a Blue Sky or La Carreta, but home-baked goods always seem fresher and more homey. Plus, I prefer supporting local women (most of the home cooks on these sites are female). Prices can be a lot better, too. Yanet sells a 13-inch flan for $10.
Whatever you are looking for, and I mean whatever, you can likely find it in your own zip code or just a few digits away with a quick swipe.
Just use common sense. Look at pictures carefully and have a good chat with your entrepreneurial chef. Meet in a public place and don’t carry valuables.
There are risks, I am sure. However, I guess I am more curious (and hungry) than I am paranoid.
After half a lifetime of eating restaurant food professionally, I am always happy to have simple, homemade dishes, especially from other cultures.
Victoria Pesce Elliott is a Miami Herald dining reviewer and an award-winning food writer. She sits on the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Review Committee.