Culinate
Book Excerpt

The New Portuguese Table

Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast

By
October 30, 2009

Republished with permission from the author. All rights reserved.

From the Introduction

Let me set the record straight: For the first 32 years of my life, I wanted nothing to do with Portugal, its food, or its culture. For anyone else, that wouldn’t have been a problem, considering that during the 1960s and 1970s, Portugal wasn’t exactly on most people’s radar. But coming from a Portuguese family, I was hard-pressed to ignore my heritage.

When I was growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts, smack in the middle of America’s biggest Little Portugal, there was always a clutch of immigrants from São Miguel, one of the nine Azorean islands and my family’s homeland, crowded around our chrome-and-green Formica table. Eating. Always eating.

And while the tawny smoke of their strange-smelling cigarettes curled itself around the ceiling light, I sat in my parents’ closet, stuffing Hostess cupcakes into my mouth, praying to be blond and blue-eyed, with a last name of Fitzgerald or Abernathy.

But when my maternal grandmother, vovó Costa, died in 1992, so did many of her specialties, such as sopa de galinha, her famous pink chicken soup, and recheio com chouriço, a moist stuffing studded with big chunks of garlicky smoked pork sausage. It was then that I grew curious about my family’s food.

I stole my mother’s “cookbook,” a green-leather telephone address book — which I still have — where she had dutifully logged some of my grandmother’s dishes, in her perfect cursive handwriting. Later, poking around my mother’s kitchen while she was cooking, I fervently jotted down whatever she did, because the last thing I wanted, as she likes to put it, was “for any deathbed recipe-dictation sessions to be cut short by the big guy upstairs.”

beans and chorizo
Beans and chorizo are a traditional Portuguese favorite.

A few years later, when I visited Portugal for the first time, I spent most of my vacations on São Miguel. Although smitten by the volcanic landscape and the ease of the Old World culture, I was riveted by the food. What hit me was that even though many dishes shared their names with those of my family, none was remotely similar. And to my mind, they weren’t just different, they were wrong. Utterly, stupendously wrong.

Until then, Portuguese food was one thing and one thing only: the dishes put in front of me by the women who love me. Period. Even more disturbing was that I’d never imagined that any dish my family cooked could be made better by someone else.

That trip launched me on a journey of discovery — of the food of my heritage and of myself — that included my becoming a Portuguese citizen in 2004.

During the past 12 years, I’ve grazed my way through every region of Portugal, the island of Madeira, and most of the Azorean archipelago. In 2007, even with the slumping dollar, I snagged an apartment in the luxe neighborhood of Sé, in Lisbon. With that as my home base, I set out. But I was always in such a rush — to learn more, see more, eat more — that one day I tripped over my luggage and, unbeknownst to me, severed my Achilles tendon.

Apparently, hunger trumps pain, because I walked on it for two months, limping up mountains with my friend the Portuguese food scholar Janet Boileau in search of the perfect São Jorge cheese, down vertiginous steps in the Alfama district with expat Amy Herrick sniffing out my next great meal, and across my apartment for another handful of Advil.

But all this traveling wasn’t without some sadness. After listening to a lifetime’s worth of my family’s stories of Portugal, I had an indelible and admittedly romanticized image of the country and its people. That’s why, at first, whenever I arrived somewhere new, I expected to find the town fool and his donkey who was smarter than him; the fat priest who indulged in the sin of dessert pilfering from the pastelaria when he thought the baker wasn’t watching; or family dinners after the yearly matança, or pig slaughter, when the cooks would triumphantly carry out platters of hard-earned food.

That Portugal was gone.

When I decided to write this book, I had to rejigger my thinking. At first I felt that if I wrote about what I was experiencing — exciting cutting-edge food, up-and-coming restaurants, a nascent TV food culture, elegant home entertaining — I was betraying my family, being unfaithful to the old ways.

It was while sitting around the dinner table of my friend José Vilela, eating falling-off-the-bone partridge escabeche with a spice profile that unmoored the dish from its traditions, that I felt an internal crowbar-pop that finally freed me. Classically, the dish is nothing more than partridge simmered in oil and vinegar. But José felt comfortable reaching for spices with the Indian and Asian flavors now so popular in Portugal to enhance and refresh, not obliterate, this ancient recipe.

All around the table were his idiosyncratic, argumentative, and wickedly funny friends, debating the merits of one restaurant over another, the need for home sous-vide machines, the benefits of Portugal’s short-grain Carolino versus long-grained Agulha rices.

At that moment, it was clear to me what I had to do: embrace this meal, this dining scene, this Portugal. Just because the Portuguese pantry and table had changed since my father left in 1958 didn’t mean Portugal was any less authentic. And neither was I less true to my heritage for wanting to write about this vibrant new culture.