Elsy Dinvil wants Portland to know that the Haiti you see on the news, full of natural disasters and poverty, is not the same as her Haiti, joyful and resilient. On the Instagram feed of her Haitian food business, Creole Me Up, you’ll see videos of kids and adults alike celebrating with Haitian dance and memes about soup joumou, Haiti’s beloved independence day soup celebrating their freedom from French colonizers. She provides Haitian sayings written in both Haitian Creole and English, along with an explanation—for instance, “chicken shit is not butter,” a saying her dad loved that means not everything that shines is gold. One post features a Haitian grandma celebrating her 105th birthday, standing with her hand on her hip, smiling in front of a gorgeous sunset. “When I look at this graceful Haitian grandma, I see pure cocoa puff beauty, wisdom, satisfaction of a life well-lived to the fullest, and strength.” Then Dinvil proceeds to drop a little Haitian cultural intel. “Gorgeous women like this manman in the Haitian culture are nicknamed ‘poto mitan,’ meaning they keep the foundation of the home together and make their world go around.”
But Dinvil has been through more than her fair share of struggle—including losing her own poto mitan. In 2016, Dinvil traveled home to her hometown of Jérémie, Haiti, to visit her mother and family in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. The roof of her mom's house was completely gone. Her mom was still grieving her friends who had died in the earthquake there, just a handful of years before in 2010. Now, she was going through it all over again with a major hurricane.
When Dinvil left Haiti that time, she knew her mom wouldn’t be around much longer. She’d been diabetic for years and that combined with the stress of so much loss was really taking its toll. "The sadness and the pain that I saw in her eyes was immense. I felt hopeless. When I returned to Portland, it took me a long time to recover and truly wake up again." In 2018, her mom had a heart attack, fell into a coma, and died five days later. Says Dinvil, "I thought, how do I go on now that the person I honor every day in my cooking is gone?"
Dinvil, now 49, is a fighter. Honoring her mother as well as her motherland, became an even more integral part Creole Me Up, which she launched in Portland in 2017, in-between that last visit to Haiti and her mom’s death.
Some of Dinvil’s strength to carry on was cultivated during the years she spent navigating severe digestive issues, stemming from previously undiagnosed food allergies. Dinvil became devoted to cooking up organic and healthy, chemical-free, allergen-free Haitian food.
“Haitians ordinarily use a lot of accents in their foods—bouillon cubes, seasoning packs, basically all sorts of powdered stuff. I say, let’s make the best out of the ingredients that we have without shaking all sorts of powders and bottles." She adds, “I make the best with what nature provides.”
Food has always been central to Dinvil’s life, but it was quite a struggle gaining the capital and traction needed to start her own business. She first came to Portland from Haiti in 1991 on scholarship to study food science at Mt. Hood Community College. After her studies, Dinvil returned to Haiti for several years. She moved back to Portland in 1999, where she’s been ever since. For the past 20 years, Dinvil has worked all sorts of jobs, ranging from administrative work to lab work. She even did a stint with Mary Kay, driving a Mary Kay car for several months: "I was definitely the only chocolate person driving a Mary Kay car in Portland!"
During the year she launched her business, she was frequently unable to pay rent and found herself homeless four different times. For the first couple years, Dinvil barely broke even. But it was her year-and-a-half of doing Haitian food pop-ups at Tamale Boy, where she cooked up dishes such as riz Anacaona (a Haitian rice and beets dish), pumpkiny soup joumou (the Haitian national dish that sparked some serious Bon Appétit appropriation controversy in December), and lamb shanks in Creole sauce, that ultimately helped her turn the corner in terms of launching her own line of food products in late 2017. Dinvil says that without Tamale Boy owner Jaime Soltero Jr., Creole Me Up wouldn’t exist. As for the hustle? "I was without a car that entire time during those pop-ups, lugging my groceries from the bus to the MAX. From the MAX to the bus. I lived in Beaverton back then." Unstoppable.
These days, Dinvil is most known for her big laugh and fun, buoyant spirit as well as her Haitian pickled cabbage, carrot, and habanero condiment Pickleez (most commonly spelled pikliz in Haiti), which comes in mild, medium, spicy, and vibrant beet-purple cabbage varieties, and is available at stores such as New Seasons, Market of Choice, and Well Spent Market. You can also find them at farmers markets including the weekly Beaverton Farmers Market, where Elsy has vended since 2018.
Dinvil also makes and sells several other Haitian condiments and fresh juice cocktail mixes, including her spicy and mild Creole marinades and her gorgeous Drop that Beet Cocktail Mix that she recommends mixing with mezcal, and regularly teaches Haitian cooking classes around Portland. A few of the many classes that she loves to teach include one on plantains in Creole cooking, and a class that takes attendees through all of the steps for making Haitian pâtés, pies, and tartelettes. Although her classes are currently offered only virtually, Dinvil can’t wait to get back to in-person classes. “Face-to-face is best because then people get full exposure to this crazy Haitian and I get to talk all about Haiti in a very good light while we cook,” she says. “You get the whole vibe and you also get all the Creole terminologies.”
2020 and 2021 have been incredibly rough for many food and drink businesses, and Dinvil estimates that in 2020 she lost 85 percent of her income. But she’s not going anywhere. In fact, in her spare time, Dinvil is also hard at work finishing up her third book. When A Zombie Tastes Salt, due out this summer, is a novel that tells her late mom's childhood story. She is also the author of two self-published Haitian cookbooks: Cooking with My Mother (2019) and Spice Up Simple Dishes with a Haitian Twist (2020).
Upcoming Products & Events: Haitian Culinary Bootcamp with Dinvil, sponsored by Portland Culinary Alliance in late December. Mother’s Day Basket, “Dinner for Her,” includes a Haitian dinner, cupcake, cocktail mix, and more, $80. Email Dinvil at [email protected] to place an order.
Farmers Markets: This spring and summer, you can find Creole Me Up and Dinvil’s Haitian sauces, condiments, and cocktail mixes at eight Portland-area farmers markets: Beaverton Farmers Market, Portland Farmers Market at PSU, Oregon City Farmers Market, Sunnyside Farmers Market, Milwaukie Farmers Market, Hillsboro Farmers Market at Orenco Station, Moreland Farmers Market, and the West Linn Farmers Market.
Elsy Dinvil’s Creole Me Up Pickleez
Makes about 1 quart
4 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
1 cup thinly sliced or grated carrots
2 thinly sliced green onions, both white and green parts
¼ cup thinly sliced yellow onion
1 medium thinly sliced shallot
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 1 medium lime)
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 to 2 tsp sea salt or more, to taste (or any type of salt you prefer)
1 medium habanero pepper, or more if you would like
1. In a large nonreactive bowl, combine the cabbage, carrots, green onion, yellow onion, and shallot. In a medium bowl, combine the lime juice, vinegar, salt, and habanero. Stir until the salt has dissolved.
2. Pour this brine into the veggie mix, and stir until fully incorporated. Cover and let it rest at room temperature for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. Serve or refrigerate in an airtight glass container for up to 1 year.
3. Serve with hot fried plantains or any fritay (deep-fried Haitian Creole foods), over a salad, in a sandwich, hamburger, burrito, quesadilla, or as a side dish. Enjoy!