Farinha

“IT’S READY,”  João announced. The fire had burned out and the pot sat on the coals,  just above the layer of sand. It was an efficient use of fuel to say the least.

João grabbed one of the coffee cups and dipped it into the pot, filling the cup with the steaming broth. Taking it back to his captain at the helm, he then lifted the other two cups and handed one to Ze. Only then did he realize there was no fourth cup. Swiveling aft, he jabbed a finger in my direction and begged his captain, “What about him?”

Mamede looked at me and his eyes got big.
“Meu Deus, I forgot to bring you a cup. I’m so sorry. Desculpe!”
If only he knew how happy this made me.
“It’s okay, Mamede. I’m not very hungry.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head and holding out his cup. “Take mine.”
“No, Mamede. I can’t do that.”
I really did not want to do that.
“Yes,” he demanded. “Take it! I’ll use the cup after you.”
What could I do? What would you have done? I took the cup.
“Thank you, Mamede.”

And there I stood, stomach churning, holding a cup of hot fish broth. They were all watching me now.  João in particular, leering at me as if he could read my thoughts.
“Go ahead,” he said, flashing a wicked little grin. “It’s really tasty.”
“I’m sure it is,” I replied. It wasn’t the going down that had me worried.

There was no avoiding it. I would have to drink some of the fish broth. Slowly I lifted the cup to my mouth and blew, less to cool the liquid than to keep from inhaling the rich vapor. And it bought me time, precious time, if only a few seconds. These are the moments when you realize that the path more traveled really isn’t so bad after all.
Maybe I should have taken a staycation this time.

Closing my eyes, I brought the cup to my lips and gently tipped it back. As the caldo entered my mouth and I swallowed, I tried with Zen-like focus to clear my mind of all negative thoughts.

Deep breath . . . Take another deep breath . . . Just keep breathing . . .

And so I breathed deeply. And breathed deeply again. And one more time just for good measure. And then I held my breath to see what would happen. What was going on in the minds of the jangadeiros was anybody’s guess, but you could have heard a pin drop.

Expecting another wave of nausea, I anxiously waited. But I didn’t get sick. In fact, the opposite occurred. My stomach started to settle down.
This is very strange. . .
Stranger still was my desire to have another sip of the caldo.
“It’s good,” I exclaimed. “It’s really good!”
This got them smiling.
“You see—I told you. I told you!” João crowed.
“Yes it is,” said Ze, dipping his own cup into the pot.

And the more I drank the better it got. The effect was so surprising, I started to think I could bottle the stuff and make millions. I’d give it some pharmaceutical sounding name like Caldozone, or Brothamine, or Ichthiolidamide (uh, no—not that). Conscious of Mamede patiently waiting, I downed my cup, rinsed it out, and filled it up for him.

Having finished our consommé, Ze and João worked together to prepare the main dish, called pirão. This was simple enough: João held the dishpan containing the farinha while Ze poured in the remaining broth and stirred it in with a spoon until he had a thick paste that looked like oatmeal cookie dough. Both pot and pan were then placed on the icebox lid where a plywood cover protected the Styrofoam. Our lunch was ready and the table was set.

Standing around the icebox, some of us were more ready to eat than others.

While the caldo had eased my stomach, I didn’t want to tempt fate with anything solid. So I held back to let the others dig in. But nobody moved — they were all waiting for me to go first. Misinterpreting my reluctance, Mamede reached into the pot and pulled out a steaming piece of fish. He set it on the plywood top and pushed the pot my way.

“First we take some fish,” he said, nodding for me to do the same. “And then we take some farinha.” With that, he pinched up a lump of the paste from the dishpan and compressed it in his palm to the size of a golf ball. He took a bite of the farinha and chewed it with obvious delight.

Now it was my turn. Conscious to use my right hand, I reached into the pot and grabbed a slice of fish. Oh, that’s hot! . . . I dropped the fish onto the plywood and pushed the pot over to Ze. Once they had their fish, they waited for me to take some farinha.  Damn their politeness!
“Go ahead,” Mamede said, “the farinha makes you strong.”
Funny, but I was thinking it would have a very different effect.

A word about farinha — which is a coarse “flour” made from the cassava root (also called manioc or mandioca). Farinha is a staple of the Brazilian diet used in many different dishes. The farinha I was familiar with, had eaten several times before, was the type sold in every supermarket in Brazil. It is highly processed and looks like unbleached flour, though more granular in texture. The most popular dish made with farinha is called farofa (recipe). Farofa is easy to make, looks like fried sawdust when it’s done, and is perfect for soaking up the juices of whatever main dish it accompanies. Usually that dish is feijoada, a succulent black bean stew that simmers for hours. Knock back a stiff caipirinha beforehand and you will be in heaven, my friend — heaven!  If the store-bought farinha could pass for Pão Bimbo (Wonder Bread), the farinha on Mamede’s jangada, produced by a local family, could have been used to make a Black Forest Vollkornbrot, with additional chaff thrown in to scour the gut. Though it came from the same root, it was not the same farinha. One more thing about cassava root: if not processed correctly with sufficient water to leach out the cyanide — it will poison you.

So I reached into the dishpan and grabbed some of the farinha. Unfamiliar with its consistency, I lifted twice the amount Mamede had taken. I didn’t intend to — it just stuck to my fingers like Bondo. When I realized what I’d done my hand froze over the pan. I was mortified, did not know what to do next. Should I try to shake some of it off, or scrape my hand like a trowel on the pan’s lip? With all of them watching me, I decided to casually bring it back and act as if nothing was wrong.
Yeah, I like my farinha!

Hand at my side, I then tried to diminish the size of the mass by squeezing it into a ball as Mamede had done. This wasn’t so easy: I’d taken too much and the stuff was like mashed potatoes in my grip. The more I tried to compress it, the more it squished through my fingers like Silly Putty.  Ze and João were too busy lifting their own pasty fistfuls to notice or care, but I could feel Mamede’s eyes were on me — the captain always knows.

I was making a mess and getting more flustered. Furtively I lowered the hand down behind the icebox and used my other hand to quickly form a ball. I then took a bite of fish while slowly raising the hand and resting it on the side of the frame — as if holding a lump of farinha the size of a goose egg was the most natural thing to do. Whistling might have helped but I don’t know how, and besides, my mouth was full of fish. So addled at that point, I hadn’t even bothered to think how the fish would taste before shoving it in. Again, like the caldo, I was completely surprised. The snapper was perfectly cooked and melted in my mouth like butter. Chewing it slowly, savoring every bit of it, only then did I start to settle down.

There were a number of things working against me at this point:  1) The two items I had just eaten (caldo and fish) were wonderful, giving me a blind sense of confidence and lowering my guard.  2) I was feeling like a wimp for being a ninny, and needed to compensate somehow.  3) I was very embarrassed by the large sticky ball in my right hand.  4) The only farinha I had ever eaten up to that point had been bland — there to absorb the flavor of the main dish (see point 1 above).  5) I was hungry.

So, as soon as I swallowed the fish I took a big bite of the farinha. I didn’t even pause to smell the stuff as my hand whipped up. That was my first mistake. The second was taking a much bigger bite than I should have. For whatever reasons (points 2 and 3 mostly), I chomped down on that thing like a man who hadn’t eaten for days. By then it was too late.

­Ugh! . . . The first thing that hit me was a yeasty, acrid odor, as if I was sucking on gym socks that had been used for weeks without washing and stored in a thin metal locker with southern exposure. The words “hot toe jam” sprang to my consciousness but I quickly tamped them down.

Chewing only made it worse. The paste was sticky and coarse, gluing to the roof of my mouth like rancid peanut butter.  João turned to me then. Our eyes met and he flashed his grin again. His tobacco-stained teeth were caked with the stuff and a glob of it dangled precariously from his beard.
“It’s so good,” he gushed, lifting his hand for another greasy bite.
“Umm-um-hmm,” I mumbled back, sweat breaking out on my forehead.

I had only two options and I had to be quick: spit the stuff out in front of everybody or swallow it down. Either way I was going to puke.
Spit? . . . Swallow? . . . Spit? . . . Swallow? . . . SPIT? . . . SWALLOW? . . . SPIT!

I started to swallow. And I swallowed and I swallowed and I swallowed — for a freaking eternity I swallowed.  As soon as I finished I crammed the rest of the fish into my mouth, hoping to mask the sour aftertaste.

Ze saw my frenzy and cried, “Look—the man’s hungry!” and pushed the pot my way. “Go ahead—take more. There’s plenty for everybody!”
I shivered involuntarily under the blazing equatorial sun.
“No—Ze. WATER!

Immediately I dropped to my knees by the keg and frantically unscrewed its cap. Stabbing in the rubber hose, I locked my lips on that thing and sucked like a madman. Unfortunately this was the first time I’d taken a drink from a jangada’s barril (there were so many firsts that day). Before I knew it a jet of stale water hit the back of my throat like a power wash. Half I inhaled, while the other half flew out in a violent fit of coughing.

I was on my hands and knees panting for breath when the hacking finally subsided. Mamede leaned down and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I tried to say, but only started coughing again.

I raised my head and saw the look of concern in his eyes. The same was true for Ze. But when I turned to João, he didn’t seem so bothered. In fact, he was grinning even wider than before. Our eyes met and he tilted his head slowly to the side. “You know,” he said, “it’s better if you drink it.”  After that he couldn’t contain himself and started cackling out loud. Great. . . Just great. His laughter infected the others. Soon they were all doubled over, slapping their thighs and howling at my expense. This went on for a very long time. Long enough that even I started to chuckle — chuckle and cough.

The jangadeiros resumed their lunch after this, standing in a tight circle around the icebox, talking and eating at a leisurely pace. It allowed them, if only for a short time, to turn their backs on the world outside. It let them relax. And while they took the time to enjoy their brief escape, I sat alone on the hatch cover — enjoying mine.

They finished their meal and washed the pot and pan in the sea with a chunk of blue soap. The fire can was tipped over the side, forming a swirl of ash that quickly disappeared downwind. And everything was stored in the hold where it would stay until our next meal. It was early afternoon and the breeze was just starting to kick up. An hour later the wind was blowing hard, whitecaps dotting and dashing the ocean surface for as far as the eye could see.

Next chapter: Medonha!

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