With a flimsy plastic drinking straw pinched between his thumb and index finger, Luis Rodriguez pokes through crushed bits of ice mounded high in a Styrofoam cup. Under the draping shade of a tree, he recalls a time in Guatemala when this was his summer gig.
"As a young kid, I worked with my uncle to scrape the ice by hand so he could sell the raspados," says Rodriguez, who now lives in Durham. "I always, always, wanted the pineapple flavor."
In front of him, a neon-green truck beams with a looping script that reads "Raspados Elenita." The Spanish term raspados comes from raspar, meaning "to scrape." Popular in most Latin American countries, they are a quintessential summertime treat of shaved ice (in the modern version, ice is crushed by machine) packed into tall cups and deluged with viscous syrups. A mélange of topping options include fresh-cut mango, homemade marmalade, rainbow sprinkles, chili powder and squirts of lime juice.
Rodriguez, his wife Maribel and their 4-year-old son Juan Angel find their respite every evening on a set of camping chairs near the Compare Foods parking lot on Avondale Drive in North Durham. They have been set out by the owner of the raspados truck, Rosa Elena Ochoa, or Elenita, on a small, curbside patch of grass near a swath of asphalt pockmarked with potholes.
A Salvadoran woman in her 50s, Ochoa speaks limited English but greets everyone with a resplendent smile and a maternal care. "Aquí está, cariño. Here you are, dear," she says, handing Juan Angel his treat topped with nance, a tiny, peach-like fruit from the tropical regions of Central America. "Nance, nance!" he screams, slurping up a spoonful.
Every day, from noon to 9 p.m., the dolled-up, converted camper van is parked in front of the supermarket. People mingle through as if it were a corner store, greeting Ochoa and recognizing passersby who wander over.
One evening, I met a Honduran man laughing under a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He says he just can't stay away from the cloyingly sweet strawberry flavor. Meanwhile, a family walks toward the grocery store. They pause, waiting for the automatic doors to open. That split second provides a moment of escape for two teenage boys who ditch the family and dart over to Elenita. The kids tell me they are from Texas and Mexico as they reach to grab the tamarind flavor they've ordered with a hefty drizzle of condensed milk.
A young girl in a polka dot dress—a pattern that matches the eyelet-ruffled curtains of Ochoa's van—twirls into a temporary state of vertigo before launching herself onto the branch of a nearby tree. The look on her mother's face—a silent "stop-what-you're-doing-or-you're-not-getting-anything"—needs no translation. She finally sits when Ochoa yells "blueberry!" Within a few minutes, the little girl's teeth are stained the same hue as what's in her almost-empty cup.
I return on a particularly balmy afternoon at a rare, 20-minute lull in a steady stream of customers. Ochoa meets me with her attentive smile while surveying the fresh fruit and bottles of syrup.
"It's so hot," she tells me. "Sit down in the shade over there and cool off."
Before I can order, she begins cutting and squeezing limes over the ice. A dense glug of syrup, the color and consistency of lava, slowly sinks into the crevices. Ochoa shakes a dash of table salt and a double-dash of chili powder to top it off. I now have a diablito, "little devil," in my hands. For a chamoyada, Ochoa adds tamarind syrup and a hefty dose of handcrafted tamarind pod marmalade (she makes it once a week in front of the television while watching the 11 o'clock news). With the addition of a thick layer of condensed milk, you've got yourself a cavity.
Raspados come in four sizes: small for $1, medium for $1.50, large for $2 and jumbo for $3.
Ochoa doesn't like to fill up on raspados (which are called minutas in her native El Salvador). You'll find her grazing on slices of mango and fresh cherries instead. She meticulously prepares each product for her customers, almost as if it's a luxury she never affords herself. But the fruit, she says, keeps her going throughout the day. She's up at 7 a.m. every day cooking breakfast for herself and her family, including her granddaughter. She prepares all the fresh products for her business, which opens by noon and closes by 9 p.m., May through September. Some days she has an employee helping her, but it's mostly a solo effort.
"I do feel tired, but I absorb the energy from all the people I serve," she says in Spanish. "If you're happy with what you have in front of you and smile and laugh with people, you capture even more energy."
At the end of her workday, the sun has already set. Somehow, despite a line full of people, the counter has been wiped already and every bit of fruit is in its place, no drops of syrup are stuck to the sides of the bottle. Switching off a bare light bulb hanging above her workspace, Ochoa smiles.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Worth the cavity."