Saturday, August 29, 2009

Guest Blogger

Today I have asked a special guest, my husband James, to blog about food in Brazil, in response to Simon Majumdar's chapter on Brazil. James has traveled to Brazil a number of times and has much to add to my two shorter posts about eating there. James has two blogs of his own: one on Environmental Geography and another on EarthView, a gigantic educational globe. He can also be found on the web at

James Hayes-Bohanan

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!

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