Baianese: “Ele sempre fica um olho em acarajé”—‘He always has an eye out for acarajé’, overheard from a passing conversation as I walked to the bus stop.
Entering the heart of Reconcavo cane fields and street vendors selling bananas, farinha, artisanal crafts and snacks appear in vast quantities. Fecundity abounds. Much as I never see castrated dogs anywhere, the suppression of reproductive potential seems to be an anathema to this land. I see diaphanous pale violet flowers peep up through the vast rows of cane. A first harvest of cacao has been husked and set to roast over wood fires in Ilheus, Costa de Cacau despite the ever-present fungus that has seriously affected the national crop. Açai from São Luis do Maranhão has already begun to enter the markets, beginning in late March. Coconut and dendé, palm fruits for oil are ripe for picking. Mandioca is harvested as needed, since it keeps perfectly well below ground for years. There is a surfeit of papaya, growing weed-like everywhere and also various types of banana, some grown to shade other crops like cacau and café. Additionally the street carts and market shelves are filled with goiaba, acerola cherries, maracúja, mango, manga, graviola, cajá and caju . I had yet to see pitanga or cupuaçu, two of my favorites.
Back home, we covet the caju [cashew] nuts, ignorant of the knowledge that there is a delicious musky fruit attached to each individual nut. Finally, in the Quilombos I discovered several salt cured fishes: sardinhas, xango, and miroro drying in the sun, and smokers filled with bright red shrimp.
Brazil is a country of hungers. One quite profound is that of access and possibility particularly prevalent in urban areas. Rezas, or prayers and lingering gazes up to the sky suggest that god will provide. Some things like bananas and papaya grow wild in the city; ready to be snatched.
In most homes I have been in, no matter the economic class three carbohydrates are standard on the dinner table. They are almost all complex and prepared in a healthful way, albeit few exceptions. They range from a variety of beans- [black, white, pale red, black-eyed peas; and others only for spiritual obligations like the vermillion, olho de boi or cow’s eye pea], farinha & farofa, pirão or manioc mush, boiled banana de terra, root vegetables and tubers, steamed white rice, cuscus not the North African grain but and sometimes spaghetti or baked macaroni. The ubiquity of these dishes is so constant as a referent to how little time has passed since hunger was a common thread across class lines. Even the landed status folks acknowledge their youth marked by poverty or a previous generation who went without. Getting ones’ ‘belly full up’ is essential.
The second hunger, A bon gosto, is entangled in the daydreams of what we have had, what we do have or will have in the future. In similar spirit to the French, Brazilians are driven by fringale, the urge to eat. For example, last night’s dinner at Raimundo’s house was centered on a delicious risotto which Aralia his wife prepared with bleu cheese, shiitakes, spinach, asparagus and sweet chilies. As much as the dish was praised at table, Aralia’s rejoinder was, “You’ll have to come back. We need to cook for you a meal of dendé.” The next morning she told me she would be serving the classic Bahian fish, seafood or vegetable stew, moqueca for lunch. “Would I care to join in?” She said they liked to make the moqueca de ovos, or shirred egg-tomato-coconut milk & dendé stew, adding small head-on shrimp and vegetables to her taste. I wasn’t set up to stay and begged off, with great regret. A good moqueca, one cooked at home is worth the invitation. The response from Raimundo was, “Ok, tell me when you’ll be back to town; we need to eat oysters together. I’ll go to the market and we’ll make a meal of oysters. Could you be here on the weekend, –maybe?” These moments provide reasons to cook, to shop and to savor the apparently endless bounty available in Salvador’s markets.
I’ve noticed that more and more people of different economies shop at Perini’s, in addition to the outdoor markets and probably Bom Preco. Perini’s would be the Fairway or Balducci’s and Bom Preco the Pathmark. Exercising the option to shop at Perini’s was a class distinction, both in the general cost of goods sold and the fact that many products were Eurocentric, imported cheeses, domestic and imported wines, fruits, olives, cured meats, etc. Some outlets offered small standup sushi bars. In addition, the mark of Perini’s was good renditions of some traditional items, breads, snack foods, regional jellies and preserved foods. I now saw that while still and indicator of status, the breadth of their shopper demographic appeared to be increasing.
Olha amendoim! Olha castanha do nordeste! Olha pipoca com coco! Olha milho grilhada…. olha cocada-tenho sabores variadas…*
Sometimes that moqueca comes from the hand and history of the empregada or maid . In Aralia’s house, Joseira, a simple slight country girl from the Sertão would make the aforementioned moqueca. Over my morning coffee, I watched her work at her cleaning. She had a thickness about her—lethargy, despite her full engagement with scrubbing and mopping. When we first spoke she appeared to have had little formal education and we stumbled around each other’s sentences. In front of her, she was described by Raimundo as that lovely marriage of Native and African that yields such lovely skin and is a recurrent theme in country. She identified that she nor her mother or grandmother had the command of native languages. Her maternal grandparents were indigenous, but weren’t taught their language. I wondered if her apparent simplemindedness was discounted for her skill on the stove. The fervor ascribed to the quality of the upcoming moqueca supported this thesis.
As a postface– I returned to my pousada in Cachoeira and related my exploits to Tia Rosa, she glowed when I said we had eaten in a Quilombo before heading into Salvador. She immediately wanted details. Had I had Camarões, Escaldinha de Sururu, Siri, and Ostras …? I could tell she knew the skill of these cooks and the idea of sampling their cooking engaged her palate with zeal. She always wanted me to come away with the best sense of her home with both visual and gustatory memories to savor. This second hunger for the sensuous and gustatory aspects of food and consumption is indelibly bound to the first hunger since most everywhere I go, many people are missing many teeth, have congenital health defects, access to rudimentary health care and life altering physical disabilities.
The cost of obrigações [obligations/religious duties] in real $ is great in comparison to actual wage rates & the amount needed to fulfill the needs of the saints.These obrigações are intended to improve one’s life or situation. Everytime I see a street offering of food, I wonder about the genesisof therequest for intercession of the orixá? Ialways hope that the prayers were answered and life is better. Secondarily, that the individual who made the request that incurred whatever cost for the obrigação didn’t go hungry. I do knowthat everywhere I go, everyone I speak to or sit with always offers to share their plate with me. Maybe this adversity makes the joy of eating Tira gostos that much greater?
*”Look I have peanuts! Check out my brazilnuts! I have grilled corn on the cob! Look come try my fresh popcorn with shredded coconut! Coconut caramel candies here! I have several flavors….”
The names of my host and their cleaning woman have been altered to provide anonymity.
Posted by Scott Alves Barton — PhD Candidate in Food Studies at NYU