Saturday, August 29, 2009
As with Weiner’s Geography of Bliss, Pam is reading Majumdar’s entire Eat My Globe book to me, a couple chapters at a time. As we read the chapter “Brazil: There must be some kind of way out of here,” she recalled not only her own experiences in Brazil but also some of the stories I have shared about Brazilian food, particularly barbeque. She has kindly invited me to guest-blog on the subject. Once I got started, the food memories flowed. I hope I don’t overstay my welcome as I reminisce.
I should begin by saying – as I used to say often – that I do not go to Brazil for the food. My first visit was for three months in 1996, when I went to study deforestation and save the world. I went to Rondônia, which I specifically chose because it was one of the harshest places I could find. (Read all about my stay at Rondônia Web.) While there, I fell in love not with the charred remains of rain forest or the smoke or the mud, and certainly not with the food, but with Brazilians. This was Majumar’s critical mistake, and the reason he ended his chapter – and his visit – with an uncharitable finger gesture toward his airplane window. Although the book is about traveling for food, in most other chapters he mentions a personal connection. Had he found a Brazilian as his guide, he might still have found the food wanting, but he would have enjoyed his dining experiences far more.
Before I comment on churrasco (barbeque), I want to share some other food memories. Early in my 1996 stay, I lived with a wonderful bachelor (a term I usually consider antiquated, but it fits my friend Walter) who literally had only beer and ketchup in his fridge most of the time, and often the beer was gone. So we had regular places to eat nearby for almost all of our meals. One was a lonche-por-kilo place – a very Spartan buffet of beef, beans, rice, steamed manioc, and manioc flour. Filling and inexpensive, the food was greatly improved by the manioc flour, and even more when I realized that hot pepper sauce could be requested. It was primarily because of this place that I ate no beef for two years after journey ended. It was good beef. Very good. But there had been far too much of it. Had I gone to this place on my own, I might not even have entered the first time. But with Walter providing entre into this community, I enjoyed many hours of food and conversation there.
Sometimes, I would take a meal at a fancier lonche-por-kilo place in the center of the city, where the beef, rice, beans, and manioc were accompanied by other selections, including potatoes and some actual vegetables and fruit. By the time of our family visit in 2000, several more of these relatively up-scale places had sprouted up, and these are what made an impression on Pam. Because I do not eat much in the heat, I remember that the “por kilo” bill for our three-year-old girl was sometimes more than mine!
Back in 1996, though, if I wanted something different, I would most often go to the bakery on another nearby corner. It was newer and brightly lit, with glass and tile where the other loncheria had wood and brick. It had just a few small tables, as it was more of a convenience store than a restaurant, but it was possible to have a small meal there. I have a few indelible memories of the place. First, it had tiny, waxy napkins that simply pushed a mess around, so that I needed a dozen of them to eat a small pizza. Second, the pizza – at this shop and some others in Porto Velho in those days – was like pizza of my previous experience in only one substantial way: it was round. Cheese was not really melted, and tomato sauce could only be added in the form of ketchup. The pizza was “baked” at about 190 degrees, and topping choices included kielbasa, green olives (with pits), corn, and peas. Mayonnaise was offered and I was surprised to find myself actually using it, just to get some moisture into the dish. The third memory concerns another professor I knew, who apparently confused the shop with a saloon, and would drink himself silly there some afternoons, which would be like getting hammered in your local 7-11.
Now to the stories that I think Pam really had in mind. In Porto Velho I have a friend, Gilmar, who I considered my “translator” even though he spoke no English. Early on, he took a keen interest in helping to learn as much as I could about Brazil and the language. He could always tell when I understood the other people around me, and conversely he knew right away if I had misunderstood something. He would then insist on explaining it to me – always in Portuguese – perhaps by speaking more slowly and soberly than the original speaker, or perhaps by providing some key bit of background information, or perhaps by going into a 15-minute alternate explanation of everything that had been said. He was tireless, even if I was exhausted, and of course this was the very best way to learn the language and culture. In those days, it was not common to have a car in Porto Velho, but Gilmar had one, so he arranged a series of excursions that contributed greatly to my understanding of the place.
The first of these was a “picnic.” He had a friend with some land outside the city, he said, and we would go out there for a Saturday afternoon meal outdoors. When we arrived at the place, I noticed that a fire had been started. Then I noticed the size of the logs – a dozen or so, well over 2 meters. Then I noticed the second fire, a short distance from the first and just as big. To achieve the perfect churrasco, this weekend rancher hung huge portions of meat – the entire rib sections of a cow – between the two fires, where they would roast ever-so-slowly, until the meat fell off the bones. At the end, he carved the meat on an enormous wooden spool that had been used to bring electric wire to the house (for watching soccer during weekend visits, among other loftier purposes). Eventually, 40-50 people were in attendance, with a long table laden with many other foods. Some folks brought hammocks to hang in trees beside the little house, and we stayed for hours, until the approach of sunset prompted most everyone to jump into cars and head back to the city, rather than getting caught on the difficult roads in the dark.
From this outing, I learned many things that I never forgot. First, “picnic” is a relative term, and in the sense of “a small meal eaten outdoors,” it probably does not exist in Brazil. If people are gathering to eat, it will be a big deal. Second, beef and wood were (and still are) entirely too cheap in the Amazon. I had chosen Rondônia in order to understand the dynamics of rapid forest clearing, and undervalued resources were an important part of the story. Third, it was on this day that I learned the importance of fatigue in learning language. I thought I was going for a brief outing with a few people, one of whom was my English-speaking roommate. The reality is that we gathered as a large group around a feast for many hours – continuing the festivities at a house back in the city well into the night. As I continued the meal – and the conversation – well past the point of exhaustion, I really began to feel immersed in the language.
I never attended a churrasco on quite that scale again, but I came close in a way, years later in Santa Catarina, in the far south of Brazil. I was visiting colleagues and students at the Universidad do Estado de Santa Catarina in Florianópolis. On an unusually cool evening, we gathered at the beautiful home of my friend and fellow geography professor Mariane. When we arrived at her house several of her students – who acted more like nephews than students, really – set about creating a churrasco at the edge of her garage. They gathered bricks and constructed a sort of combination grill and oven, eventually preparing five different kinds of meat to perfection. For a group of scarcely a dozen souls, it was quite a feast, and just the thing for the chill that was in the air.
In the course of seven visits, I think I have found the kind of experiences with food and people that Majumdar has found in many parts of the world, but somehow missed in Brazil. If he should ever wish to try again, I know a few good places to eat, but more importantly, I know a great number of good people to eat with!
Friday, August 28, 2009
Nathan is actually a psuedonym for Cathy Small, and Anthropology Professor at Northern Arizona University who was "outed" just before the book was released. She had hoped to remain anonymous, but that actually seemed like a pretty tall order for someone who was studying the students at the University in which she herself taught. She did go to some trouble to keep her identity a secret. She never names the school, or where it is located; and takes classes only with professors she's never heard of. There's no picture or biography of her on the inside flap of the book jacket. Something I have noticed is almost always present on any of the other (hardcover) books I read
The copy of My Freshman Year I received from Interlibrary Loan came from the Wellfleet Public Library in good ol' Cape Cod.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
The two "Back to School" books I chose to read this month are My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by Rebekah Nathan; and Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. I have received a copy of My Freshman Year, but have not started to read it. I plan to start blogging about it next week. In the meantime I will suggest to readers the following book with a similar theme: David Owen's High School:Undercover with the Class of '80. As an adult, Owen created a transcript and "transferred" to a high school in New York with his editor masquerading as his mother. He attended classes, joined clubs, made friends, and took his wife to a high school dance, much to her chagrin. No one at the school ever discovered that he was incognito. I remember that he said he doubted any of this classmates would ever find out about the deception since none of them ever read a book that wasn't assigned. This is an old book to be sure, but a good one. I must have read it 25 years ago. Since I was a member of the class of '82 much of it rang true for me. My guess is that much of what he says still holds true. Perhaps I'll revisit it myself.
I close with the immortal words of Patty Simcox in Grease "Don't you just love the first day of school?" See you in September.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
My daughter and I tried Frida Kahlo's Pan de Muerto recipe last year from Barbara Kingsolver's "year of" book - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Although tasty, our skulls weren't quite as artistic as I suspect Frida's turned out to be. Ours looked more like white blobs.
Another food Majumdar enjoys while in Mexico are Chilaquiles. I had learned about these for the first time a few years ago when one of the textbooks I was using for my Spanish class included a picture of them, and a definition - chilaquiles is an aztec word meaning "old worn hat". It is made from old tortilla chips, salsa, and cheese. Majumdar's chilaquiles also have eggs. We have recently discovered a yummy recipe in the New York Times that includes chicken.
Monday, August 24, 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this funny film. Meryl Streep as Julia Child was fabulous. The movie tells the stories of both Julia Child and her life in France and Julie Powell as she works her way through all 500+ recipes in Child's cookbook in one year. It is refreshing to see a movie that tells the story of not one, but two, good marriages. Ironically, the movie was written by Nora Ephron whose movie Heartburn, told the story of her own bad marriage. Heartburn was particularly memorable for how much I disliked it. I have seen some of Ephron's other efforts, and most I could take or leave. She really hit the mark with J&J though. I put it right up there with When Harry Met Sally...
One part of the movie that both James and I were intrigued by was Powell's description of aspic which she was "sorry" to have come to in the cookbook. Aspic is made from calf's foot jelly, which Powell boiled down herself. Majumdar talks of a similar gelatinous ingrediant used in pork pie, which he says is made from pigs "trotters" - those Brits! Anyway, I have only this to say about the whole thing - yick.
One scene in the movie has Powell and her husband visiting an exhibit of Child's kitchen that the Smithsonian put on display on August 19, 2002. To read more about this kitchen, custom built for 6'2" Child, see this entry from Mass Moments.
Julia Child's birthday was earlier this month on August 15. I had really intended to see the movie then, but it didn't work out.Julie Powell's book is on my list for November, when my theme will be food.
To hear Nora Ephron talk about her movie on NPR click here.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
At first I thought this might actually be a 7-year (dog year) memoir, but it is, indeed, only one (people) year. The year encompasses the death of 2 very mellow dogs and the arrival of 2 extremely hyper dogs, some of whom overlapped. Katz really loves all his dogs and this book made me remember all of the dogs I've had over my life. So herewith, I reminice about my canines.
My first dog was a basenji named Mtoto, a Swahili word for baby. My mother picked it because basenji's are from Egypt. He had a beautiful, shiny black coat with a white triangle on his neck, white feet and a white tip on his tail. He also had a brown spot above each eye. He was gentle, but typical of basenji's, chewed everything in sight. My mother tells the story of some new furniture that he chewed so badly we were still making payments on it even after it was sent to the dump. We got him a mate who we called Bibi, Swahili for young female, who wasn't as friendly, but just as much of a chewer. She had a lovely red coat.They were especially fond of underwear. They had two litters of six puppies each together. Mtoto's death was my first experience with grief. I was nine years old, he was eight. We had him put to sleep after an unsuccessful battle with cancer. Bibi died when she was 12.
Pablo was a beagle mix my husband and I adopted from a "free to good home" ad on an index card tacked to a bulletin board at a pet shop. We'd been thinking of getting a dog and I especially thought a beagle would be a good size for our small apartment and small yard. I was wrong. Beagles have A LOT of energy and need much exercise. We eventually found an exercise schedule that worked for us all, but he was one crazy dog. Everyone loved him, too. We moved several times while we had him and everywhere we went people wanted to pet him and he schmoozed like a pro. People we were sure we had never met would come over and say "Hi, Pablo" when we were out. He was lovable, friendly and quite a traveler. After fighting Valley Fever and, epilepsy he finally succumbed to diabetes just before he turned nine.
Our current dog, Clover, was a rescue dog from Puerto Rico. She was about a year old when we got her. We have the folks at Save a Sato to thank for rescuing her and sending her to the Northeast animal shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. She is not nearly as friendly as Pablo was, but is fiercely loyal. She is a great watch dog. A true mutt of undetermined heritage she looks like a lot of other Latin American street dogs, medium in size with short brown fur. We got her 9 years ago for my daughter's third birthday, but it is clear to anyone who sees our family together that she likes me best. She follows me around the house all the time and sits outside the bathroom when I am in there. She is not active like the basenji's or the beagle and simply wants to take her daily walk every day and have a "flip chip" (rawhide chew) in the evening. Although she does not have the friend network that Pablo did she does have a few people she greets on her walk. Our friend Kitty is often found at the window of My Sister and I restaurant when we go by, and the gentleman who runs the Lucky Star gas station in town sometimes gives her a biscuit. She always quickens her pace when we get close to this establishment. Her favorite thing is waiting for me to come home during my lunch hour in the winter time, so she can have her "porch time." Our south-facing front porch can reach up to 80 degrees on a sunny day in the winter. She goes out there to warm herself.
My dog memories would not be complete without mention of two others, who were not exactly my dogs, but dogs I was in charge of for long enough periods of time that they had significant influence in my life. The first is Chippy, a mutt who belonged to my Uncle David. Our family watched Chippy for several months while Dave established himself in a new home. He was a very friendly dog, and according the Dave, "the best dog ever." I'm not sure how they came together, perhaps Chippy was a stray, or maybe a friend gave him to Dave. I remember my sister and I driving to Cherry Hill, New Jersey to reunite them. There was definite excitement on both the part of Chippy and Dave. The other dog is Barbara who belonged to two professor's at Miami of Ohio when we were students there. The professors spent the better part of a year in Europe during the end of our three-year sentence in Ohio and asked us to live in their gorgeous farm house and watch their dog and cat (who was called Donna). We had Barbara at the same time we had Pablo who was about a year old at the time. She really put up with a lot. She was a simple yellow mutt from the pound who was gentle, kind and gave Pablo a bit of mothering. We had to leave Barbara and Donna when we moved to Arizona. Their owners picked them up at the kennel where we had dropped them off the week before. It was heartbreaking watching Barbara try to come after us when we left her. I saw her one more time about 6 or 7 years later when we were passing through Ohio. She was very old, and if she remembered us, she didn't show it. She died shortly after. I never did see Chippy again, although I did just visit Uncle Dave. He is living with his son and son's girlfriend and they have two chihauhas, Bear and Scrappy. Bear bears an uncanny likeness to Mtoto. He is like Mtoto in miniature, right down to the white triangle on his neck. It was spooky.
Every month American Libraries and Library Journal report on more libraries losing funding, even as more people report using them. I was recently in our local, horribly underfunded, public library and heard a patron complaining about the fact that it was open so few hours. The point is well taken, but Bridgewater residents did this to themselves when they refused to raise taxes.
Additionally, we listed to Don't Know Much about Geography by Kenneth C. Davis, which was quite enlightening, although, according to my Geographer husband does contain a few mistakes, but mostly is very accurate, although it was published in 1992. We were loaned a variety of audio books from my friend Elizabeth who has quite a collection. From her picks we listened to The Cat who Came in from the Cold by Deric Longden and The Cat who went to Paris by Peter Gethers. Neither of these is related to the Lilian Jackson Braun mystery series. In fact, both are memoirs, which kind of fit in well with my dog memoir theme for the month.
We also listened to Garrison Keillor's book Liberty about Lake Wobegon's fourth of July celebration. He sure can spin a yarn. This one has a bit of ribaldry as well. It is laugh-out-loud funny, and at 7 1/4 hours, a perfect story for a road trip. Also, courtesy of Elizabeth, we had a CD of jokes called Pretty Good Jokes from Keillor's radio show Prarie Home Companion.
I'd forgotten how much friendlier folks in other parts of the country are. I guess I'm used to the New England standoffishness, but it was very pleasant traveling to other places and talking to people who appeared to be genuinely pleased to meet me.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Find out more about Seddiqui on NPR, or check out his blog Living the Map
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Majumdar's trip to China helped him to establish where he draws the line on ethical eating. Seahorses and rats are okay; lizards are not. Neither are dogs that have been beaten before being slaughtered. Apparently there is a belief that the adrenaline charge improves the flavor.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
In my own household my husband, James, likes to say about himself "I am fourth". This little joke refers to his name (James Kezar IV) but mostly to the fact that he knows his place in the household line up. He wisely understands that I am first. My daughter is second and the (female) dog, Clover, is third. I don't understand what the problem is though - there is no question that he is the alpha male. He also clearly rates above the rabbit and our two fish.
Michael Pollan's interview on Fresh Air can be heard here.
His New York Times magazine cover piece is here.
To find out more about corporations owning your food watch the movie Food, Inc.
The dog days of summer are so named for Sirius - the dog star. "Dog days" is also August's theme. I will begin by reading The Bad Dog's Diary - A Year in the Life of Blake: Lover...Fighter...Dog by Martin Howard. The copy I am reading comes to me by way of the Middleborough, Massachusetts Public Library. This book is a definitive "year of" book beginning on January 1 and ending on December 31. It is written from the dog's perspective. It is classified as fiction, but the inside flap indicates that the author's own two dogs "provided the inspiration behind almost all of the events in this book..."
I saved this quote about "dog days" from A.J. Jacob's book The Know It All for posting when I got to this point in my blog:
“One of my proudest quiz moments was knowing the origin of the phrase “dog days of summer.” (It derives from the ancient belief that the Dog Star, Sirius, gives off the heat of a second sun, so when it’s rising it causes the weather to be particularly hot.)”