Another Island Note…
In 1969 I spent a long, hot summer in Columbus, Ohio and I was busy. I was caretaker of five beagle puppies while my roommate wandered away in search of his latest muse. I turned down an offer to go to a distant, unnamed music festival (yes, it turned out to be Woodstock). And I was in deep academic kimchi so to speak as I was taking 15 hours of intensified Portuguese to fulfill my language requirement for a college degree.
My instructor, Ricardo, from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais told us two summer-changing facts on the opening day of class. The first was that this would be the last time that English would be spoken during the course. There was a collective gulp among us dozen students. The second was if you miss just one class, don’t even bother returning. The lessons were given at such blistering speed (3 days of normal class in one) that you would never be able to recover the loss. This explains why that sultry summer I did not see Santana, the Who, Mr. Jimmy or Joe Cocker strut their stuff at Woodstock.
This language course was all encompassing as we had been warned. From eight until noon it was non-stop oral exercises, grammar explanations, written exercises and tests in the classroom. Ricardo lived up to his pledge of no English other than the few times we resisted in mass and forced him to explain a complicated grammatic problem. Other than that, it was Fala en Português! After lunch there were 2-3 hours of language lab work. My ears throbbed each day after a half hour due to the clunky headphones that made us look like crew members of a B-52. Then it was home to feed the puppies, followed by 2-3 hours of written exercises and reading. Take all that five times per week, and this course was downright grueling.
But I never missed a class and by the time we were freed in August, I could actually speak Portuguese, probably at the level of a five-year old. I duly impressed myself, but those results were only possible because of a dedicated teacher like Ricardo. He was the best I ever had. The man not only taught us the language, but the Brazilian culture. It was there that I learned about feijoada, the national dish of Brazil—that south-of-the-border concoction of black beans, pork, sausage, vegetables and herbs. When Ricardo passionately described its taste, the class salivated in unison. I knew right then I would have to try this stew. Little did I know that I would have to wait for nearly a half century.
* * *
There are only a handful of Brazilians that live on Bonaire. I am fortunate to know Valmor and Angelica Zimmermann. Valmor’s nickname is Junior. I find that ironic for the man is an avid weightlifter and diver and not physically small. Nor is his larger-than-life personality. Junior is a passionate person that loves a good time, a cold beer and a fast boat—all three of which I have shared with him in the past. When I told him the story from above he said, “Patrick, we must make feijoada for you. It is the national dish of Brazil. You have to try it!”
That was about three years ago. I discovered that neither Angelica nor Junior had ever made the stew. Rather they rely on family or restaurants to supply their feijoada fix. But that changed this year. When Angelica and Junior arrived in March, they brought along Araci to take care of Theo, their two-year old son. This was quite a trip for the middle-aged au pair. It was her first time out of Brazil. She flew on an airplane, her maiden voyage in the air. And most importantly she brought decades of feijoada cooking experience to Bonaire.
“Why don’t Hettie and you come to our home on Saturday afternoon,” suggested Junior. “That is when feijoada is traditionally served. We will have a few caipirinahs and then we will eat!” My Portuguese instructor, Ricardo, had taught me well. I remember him explaining caipirinahs to the class. It is Brazil’s national cocktail consisting of cachaça (sugarcane hard liquor), sugar and lime. When we arrived at one, we began sipping on these cool, potent cocktails.
I was eager with anticipation. After having waited nearly a half century, I was about to taste the elusive feijoada. “Araci could not find all the ingredients here that we use in Brazil,” explained Junior. “She had to substitute bread crumbs for cassava, the kale (which comes from Holland) here is sweeter than ours and a couple of the meats are different, but this comes pretty close to the real thing.” The four of us flocked to the kitchen with plates in hand. “You can pick out what meats you want on your dish,” urged Angelica. “Everybody does that in Brazil. I always get the sausage, but you will find pieces of beef, smoked pork and pork ribs in the pot.” We all filled our plates and sat to dine on their terrace overlooking the sapphire blue Caribbean.
The feijoada was splendid. It has a hefty texture and the flavors of the meats and black beans mix seamlessly with the white rice and the dark green kale laced with garlic and onions. The Brazilians and I returned for seconds while Sergio Mendes played in the background. That was followed by cool coconut flan with stewed prunes. With bellies full, I pulled out my contribution to the feast, a bottle of El Dorado rum aged for 21 years in wooden casks in Guyana. With eyes half-closed, I stared out to the sea. I thought of Ricardo, the generosity of the Brazilians I have known, the five beagle puppies and the beautiful language of Portuguese, now just a fading memory on my stumbling tongue. But I did manage this, “Obrigado. Muito obrigado pela comida maravilhosa. (Thank you. Thank you for the wonderful food)”The four of us spent the rest of the mellow afternoon making plans to visit Brazil together. And as Junior reminded me time and again, “There are many restaurants there that served fantastic feijoada. We must try them all!”