Creole Me Up’s Elsy Dinvil Serves Up Spice, Sass—and an Incredible Story.

After her Sassy in Pink marinade transformed my boring, skinless chicken breast into a scintillating Caribbean staycation, suddenly I was both fan and friend.

Elsy Dinvil doesn’t take shortcuts—in food or in life.

When she founded Creole Me Up in 2017, she’d been working two jobs, waking at 3 am to tackle a Frankensteined-together, four-hour public transit commute. When she could finally afford a beat-up car, she found herself sleeping in it more than once. All the while, Dinvil was dealing with digestive issues so debilitating and persistent, she thought she might have cancer. After an intense colon surgery, she even had to relearn how to walk.

“I was broken and broke,” she says. “I was feeling like a ghost.”

Fast forward to 2023, and you can find Dinvil smiling and laughing with customers at markets across Portland. In fact, when I first met her in 2022 at the Portland State University Farmers Market, I almost walked right by—but her huge grin and sweet greeting beckoned me. After her Sassy in Pink marinade transformed my boring, skinless chicken breast into a scintillating Caribbean staycation, suddenly I was both fan and friend (or, as Dinvil says, her “cousin”). When she told me she finished her MBA last December—a feat she paid for out of pocket with Creole Me Up proceeds—she came out from behind the table to wrap me in a hug.

But even if she’d been totally standoffish, her food would still have had me coming back weekly.

Along with versatile marinades, Dinvil sells infused cooking vinegars and pickleez—a spicy, pickled vegetable slaw popular in Haiti, where it’s spelled “pikliz.” No matter what you buy, turn over the jar and you’ll see that it’s made with whole, plant-based ingredients: onions, garlic, peppers, beets, and lime juice, to name a few.

Growing up in Jérémie, Haiti, it was Dinvil’s job to crush ingredients like these by hand to make the day’s spice rubs and marinades. Today, she does the same to bring people together over foods that are as delightful as they are healthy. Eating for well-being has also helped Dinvil. She found the cure to her digestive issues when a naturopath determined that allergies were the culprit and encouraged her to give up processed foods. Her commitment to fresh ingredients is working for others as well: Along with regular appearances at farmers markets, Dinvil’s products are sold in retail stores, including Market of Choice and New Seasons—where she once worked as a cashier.

The transformation between those dark, early days and the celebratory present is an incredible story of community, solidarity and resilience that could easily spill a lot more ink than this. (Dinvil wouldn’t let me pen this piece without directly shouting out Jaime Soltero Jr., the founder of Tamale Boy, who showed her the ropes back in late 2016 and allowed her to work rent free out of his kitchen for months.)

And as incredible as the food is, the real magic of Creole Me Up is its story—one that Dinvil has a fever to tell. Her cookbook, Cooking With My Mother, is a dense tome that blends memoir with recipe writing. She’s already at work on her next book and hopes to finish it by the end of the year. Dinvil also plans to get involved with Portland’s houseless population, collecting donations of clothing and other necessities, and prepare to dive into motivational speaking. She wants to inspire low-income families, women coming out of prison, and others in vulnerable and transitional positions.

She’ll certainly do it all with style because that’s how she does everything—and she knows the long route up from rock bottom so well herself. The past decade has been a steady climb, taking Dinvil from self-appointed “ghost” to gregarious host, an effort-intensive process of intentionally coming out of her shell.

But it was worth it, Dinvil says. Now she’s rewarded by the look on her customers’ faces when they have that first, magical sample; the ones who come back for more week after week.

“I want to do bigger things than just making good food,” Dinvil says. “I want people to see something beautiful.”

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