Um Peixezinho

“I’m Hungry!” João declared to no one in particular. It was midday and we had yet to eat anything.
Mamede looked at João and then over to Ze, who nodded in agreement.
He then turned to me and boasted, “Now you will see how we eat on a jangada. Very good!”

“Ótimo,” I replied (Great), expressing an enthusiasm I didn’t really have. In truth I had no desire to eat right then. I was feeling a little seasick. I am, unfortunately, a sailor who gets seasick. There are more of us out there than you might expect. It’s not something we really care to toss about.

I’ve tried everything to prevent it: Dramamine, Meclizine, wristbands, the Patch—even ginger on one occasion. None of them work. All they do is prolong the inevitable. Which is why I try to bring on the inevitable as soon as possible. Two well-placed fingers are all it takes to clear the stomach and the head. (Brutal, I know, but oh so quick.) I am luckier than most — I do get over my seasickness, and fairly quickly. Some poor souls never do. And if I am lucky enough not to lose it on the first day, then I’m usually good to go for the rest of the trip.

Which is why I tend to starve myself before leaving on a voyage, having learned from experience that bile is much more easy to hurl when not mixed with lumpy bits of food. But certain things set me off no matter what I do, and they all relate to the sense of smell. Oil and gas fumes are by far the worst (one of the many reasons I prefer sailing), and the smell of cooking food can also make me ill, especially when the dish is cloyingly aromatic. All it takes is one whiff of the sweet and sour pork at just the right moment and you will see me lunging for the rail, hand to mouth.

Strangely, though, I didn’t feel so bad on the jangada that morning. I wasn’t feeling great, mind you, but at least my head wasn’t pounding and I didn’t have that bottomless wrenching in my gut that tears at the soul, as if the end of existence is very near. (If you’ve ever been seasick, you know what I mean.) Why I wasn’t feeling so bad, I really don’t know. Maybe it had something to do with standing on a deck so close to the water I never had to worry about washing my feet. Whatever it was I tried to maintain a positive attitude as I watched the jangadeiros prepare our first meal on board.

Mamede steered while the others did the cooking. Like any good chef the first thing Ze did was sharpen his knife. He did this not with a sharpening tool or honing wand, but with a flat river rock he had found near his home. Placing the disk-like stone on the deck by the rail, he ran his knife over the top, expertly flipping the blade with each pass while wetting the surface with palms of seawater.  scrape-scrape–scrape. . .

While Ze scraped steel,  João climbed below to get the things needed to prepare the meal: a wooden box containing various items (condiments and utensils), a dented aluminum dishpan, an equally dented six-quart pot with a wire handle, and most interesting, and dented, by far — a homemade cookstove.

The crude stove was as simple as it gets: a five-liter can open at the top, nailed to a thick plank that acted as a foot-board. Though beaten and blackened with soot, there was enough paint left on the can’s side to see what the original content had been: ESSO — stamped in bold red letters, with a unique E that looks like a backward 3. And printed below: Lubrificante das Partes Superior (auto lubricant). The last letters were cut off by a ragged hole punched through the side for ventilation. A couple of inches of hardened sand lined the can’s bottom to act as insulation.

João secured the stove to the top of the closed hatch, anchoring its foot-board with the same line used to tie down the cover. I stood there gawking at this, not believing they were actually going to build an open fire on a wooden deck while we sailed along, over the bounding main.

João noticed my interest. He tapped the side of the can with a blunt finger and enunciated slowly, “THIS IS WHERE WE COOK THE FOOD.”
I kept staring and he kept tapping. Finally I had to ask, “What do you make the fire with,  João?”
Squinting, he reached into the condiment box and pulled out a bundle of neatly tied branches. “WOOD,” was all he said, holding up the bundle with one hand and pointing at it with the other as if we were having a little show and tell. He then dropped the sticks back into the box and I vowed to keep my mouth shut.

Ze brought out the two red snappers Mamede had picked up in the morning. The fish were already gutted, so he scaled and finned them at the rail, then cut them crosswise into inch thick steaks. All the pieces, including the heads, went into the pot for a final rinsing with seawater. He then handed the pot to João who added the vegetables (green pepper, onion, and tomato) he had diced on top of the hatch cover.

João took the pot aft to siphon water from barril while Ze started the fire. For this he grabbed a piece of desiccated coconut husk from the condiment box and pried it apart with the point of his knife. The resulting fibery mass was so fine and dry, it looked like it would catch fire on its own if left sitting in the sun too long. Ze helped it along. Striking two matchsticks together, he jammed the flaring heads into the husk and held it aloft for the wind to fan. Soon the mass was smoking and he dropped it into the can. The smoking increased, blowing from the can like a chimney, while Ze untied the branches and threw in a few of the smaller sticks. As soon as these caught fire the rest of the wood was added in an orderly fashion.

João returned and placed the pot on the crackling wood. The pot sat high at first, held up by the burning branches. Like boys around a campfire the three of us watched as the fire grew, flames licking up the side of the pot.
“How long does it take to cook?” I asked, breaking my vow of silence.
“About fifteen minutes. When the fish is done.”

As the wood burned the pot sank lower in the can.  João added some chopped cilantro to the caldo and stirred it in with a wooden spoon, though the broth was stirring itself quite nicely from the motion of the raft. While he fussed over the stew, Ze grabbed the quimanga from the espeque and poured out a small mountain of the farinha into the aluminum dishpan. He then grabbed three plastic coffee cups from the condiment box and inspected them. Not liking what he saw, he knelt at the rail and washed them out with seawater. For hardened fishermen they seemed quite content performing their small domestic duties.

My appetite started to perk up. I was even thinking I might be able to eat something without having any problem. Amazing how easy it is to fool ourselves, and how quickly we forget.

“Time for the oil!” João squawked, lifting a small bottle of orange colored palm oil from the box. He uncorked the stopper and tipped about an ounce into the broth. I was standing downwind as he stirred it in and suddenly, without warning, a plume of the vaporized oil hit me. It was exactly the type of smell I am so sensitive to — “cloyingly aromatic.”

Before I knew it I started to gag.

Quickly I stepped to the windward rail, breathing deeply through my open mouth. My salivary glands were pumping out spit and I did my best to swallow it down. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I gazed at the horizon as if admiring the scenery (not that there was anything to see). And there I stayed, praying for relief, while an awful battle raged inside of me.
Please. . . not here. . . not now. . .  I continued this little charade for several minutes, concentrating hard on a cloud, until I could feel myself backing down from the point of no return. The sickness passed — thank heaven! — but so too did any hope of having a problem free meal.

Next chapter: Farinha