Paninis and Pupusas: A Jackson Heights Love Story

By Brianna Caszatt and A Gerald Martini

In the months leading up to the World Cup, we kept reading headlines like “Panini Truck Heist in Brazil” or “Colombian Teacher Caught Stealing Students’ Paninis,” to which we thought: what the heck do sandwiches have to do with football? Then our Brazilian friend presented us with our very own Panini World Cup sticker book so we could join him in his quest to collect all of the stickers needed to fill its pages; Panini, it turned out, was a sticker brand rather than a sandwich.

The goal of a Panini sticker book is simple: collect and stick on every sticker (there are 643 in all). There are several stickers related to the Panini brand, FIFA (the international football organization), and the World Cup more generally, including stickers for the 12 stadiums (each stadium is split into two stickers). But, most importantly, each of the 32 teams has a national emblem, a group photo, and a picture for most of the players (there are only 17 player stickers per team rather than the full 23, and these were from the players who were projected to be selected for the tournament, meaning some stickers are of players who ended up not getting selected to actually play).

To start our collection, we bought seven-packs of stickers for $1 each at sports stores and bodegas around the city. Early on, almost every pack that we purchased was packed with stickers that we needed—it was fun! But as our sticker book filled up, we started getting a lot of duplicates, meaning each packet of seven had fewer and fewer of the stickers that we needed. It was time to start trading—and that was when things started getting really exciting.

We heard through a friend of a friend about a street corner at 84th Street and 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights where (on Saturdays and Sundays) Panini stickers were bought, sold, and traded, as other World Cup-crazed fans tried to complete their books by the start of the Cup. The first time that we came to the corner, it was very intimidating, since there were a bunch of hunched over little groups of people swapping their stickers. And we soon realized that we were very under-prepared. Nobody else had their booklets with them, rather they were just carrying a list with the numbers of the stickers they were missing (there is a number that corresponds with every empty sticker space in the book) and their stacks of duplicates to trade and sell. We still had over half a book to fill, so we just watched and bought more packs, knowing many would be duplicates but that we’d be building up our stock of stickers to trade and sell.

We were back next weekend, with our list of missing stickers, our duplicates neatly ordered, and Bri dusting off her Spanish skills (at least her numbers). Eventually, after standing around by ourselves long enough, a mother and her son came up to us to see if we needed any of their duplicates—they were riding high as they just finished their collection and wanted to offload their left-overs. And they did in fact have several stickers we needed, this time for 25 cents each.

And pretty soon we were well in the thick of it! (For any Buffy fans out there, it was as exhilarating as when Anya discovers her love of capitalism making her first sale at the Magic Box.) We were buying from, selling to, and trading with people of all ages: from children barely talking, half hidden behind their mothers’ legs, to geriatrics barely walking. Everyone with their number sheets and stickers, everyone trying to achieve the same goal: a complete book. And after our next outing at the sticker swap, we finished our book and got to share in the joy of others as they finished theirs—one kid literally fell to his knees in exaltation when he found his last sticker. (It was only slightly demoralizing when we had to pay $2 for our last sticker, which turned out to be an advertisement for Panini. They print a smaller number of them. Go figure!)

And as no one should trade stickers on an empty stomach, we also discovered the savory delight that is the pupusa. It is the pupusa, not the Panini, which is the long-term hero in our story here. A year from now we may never look at our Panini book again, but we will certainly still be eating pupusas.

Pupusas are an El Salvadorian specialty. They look like stuffed pancakes: approximately 6 inches in diameter, fried in a pan to a slight brown on either side. The dough is a cornmeal base, and it is stuffed with beans, meat, and cheese (or some combination thereof). They are served with a simple tomato sauce and red cabbage-vinegar coleslaw. And they are Amazing!

Gerry had heard about pupusas the week before we started our Panini books, so we decided to fill up before trading stickers under the hot sun. We walked into Mi Pequeño El Salvador Restaurant and ordered one of every pupusa on the menu. Whether they had cheese oozing out or a salty, meaty middle, each variation was incredible. We decided that every time we came out to trade stickers we would stop for pupusas first, and we maintained that tradition each of the three weekends that we took to complete our Panini book. There was just something about that fried-dough goodness that made standing on that corner swapping small, worthless pieces of paper seem like the most natural thing in the world!

Our sticker collection is complete, and the World Cup has drawn to a close, but our love of pupusas has given us another reason to ensure that Jackson Heights will remain a frequent destination for us.