Since leaving on the trip I had eaten a mouthful of farinha, two stale crackers, three bites of fish, and five heavenly cookies – Five golden rings.
I was so hungry at that point, I could have easily scarfed the partridge down and all the pears in the pear tree too. (Braised partridge in a pear sauce glaze — Oh, Lord!) Having scraped the farinha pan clean with their sticky fingers, the jangadeiros had eaten a little more than me. But they had also worked a lot harder. It was a safe bet they were just as hungry as I was.
Unless Mamede had some trick up his sleeve to flatten the surface or magically boil water (I had already seen him part the seas), I had no idea how they would cook on deck. The wind had dropped and the waves were calming down, but it was still too rough. Making matters worse, the jangada was anything but happy while sitting at anchor, jerked about like a puppet on a string. None of this was particularly conducive to building a fire in the can.
Without direction João lifted the hatch and squirmed below. He was moving quickly, muttering to himself again as he brusquely shifted items in the hold. There was a dull clanking of metal on metal, followed by what sounded like clinking glass. More muttering, more shifting, then his hands came up, holding the aluminum dishpan (the farinha pan). Sitting in the pan were two rectangular cans and two large brown bottles. Ze took the pan and set it on the icebox, allowing João to climb out and close the hatch cover. Rung to the fingers of his left hand were the three plastic coffee cups.
Seeing the scuffed brown bottles lying in the pan did a lot to offset the sight of the pan itself. The 600 ml bottles were the type used by every brewer in Brazil. And if there is one thing Brazilian manufacturing does exceedingly well — it makes great beer! Brazilians are fanatics about beer and the colder it is, the better — Stupidly cold, as they say. Why the jangadeiros hadn’t put these babies in the icebox, I could only guess. But sailors, like beggars, aren’t very choosy. Warm or cold, nothing was going to taste better than that there beer. YES!
I sighed happily just thinking about it — reached over and hefted one of the beauties from the pan. Holding it gingerly, Don’t you dare drop it, I rotated the bottle, looking for a label. Hmm—must have fallen off.
“What type of beer is this?” I asked, lifting up the bottle.
João looked at me like I was daft.
“Beer? That’s not beer. It’s caju juice.” (cashew juice)
“YES—CAJU JUICE. You know—the fruit.”
“Yes . . . But I didn’t know it came in a juice.”
“Well, it does.”
“Is it any good?”
At that, he grabbed the bottle from my hands and popped off the cap with the back of his knife blade. He then poured some juice into a cup and handed it to me. Looking into the cup, I couldn’t help but notice that the liquid had the same rich, nutty brown color as my favorite Pale Ale. But when I took a sip — Ugh! — not even close.
Possibly I had the taste of beer in mind (God only knows how much I did), but the juice was a lot sweeter than I expected. And it was flatly carbonated, as if it had been more carbonated at some previous point in time. And it had a slightly sour aftertaste, like maybe it had passed the sell-by date that would have been stamped on the label (provided the bottle ever had one). Hard to tell, I had never drunk the stuff before, but it did taste a little sour — sweet and sour . . .
If the juice had in fact turned, then my only hope was that some cava-like fermentation had occurred in the bottle.
“Good, huh?” João asked with a squint.
“Great!” I shot back, wondering at the churning in my gut.
“É mesmo,” he said, pouring himself a cup which he drained in a few quick gulps. As he drank, I watched for any reaction that would indicate the juice was off. Apparently not, because all he did was belch out loud, then wipe off his beard with the back of his hairy wrist.
“So . . .” I ventured, “what are we going to eat?” I was pointing at the two tins in the pan, afraid to make any further assumptions.
“Fiambre,” Ze answered.
“Fiambre? What’s that?” There was something familiar about the shape of the cans but my mind wasn’t working so well right then.
“Fiambre de porco.”
“Pork lunch meat . . .” I repeated slowly, and then it hit me. SPAM!
“Ah — friambre!”
“Yes,” Mamede said. “We always bring some in case it gets too rough.”
“I see . . .” I said. And with the dubious flavor of the juice still on my tongue, I wondered when it was last too rough. Quickly I squelched the thought and tried to focus on the positive.
Spam . . . It always got a bad rap. I actually kind of liked the stuff, or at least had fond memories of it: camping with my dad as a kid, peeling off the tin lid with that little key stuck to the bottom of the can, cutting the block of pressed meat into thick slices, watching them sizzle and spit in the pan while the wonderful aroma of fried pork filled the crisp mountain air. Spam and eggs — Yes! — a great camping combination. My mouth was watering just thinking about it. But then, we had no eggs on board and no chance of frying.
No matter, I thought. The meat was already precooked and would taste just fine. Anything but the damn farinha!
Cold cuts! We were having cold cuts.
But where were the crackers?
“Uh—do you want me to get the bolachas?” I tentatively asked.
“Bolachas? What for?” João was giving me the eye again.
“For the fiambre.”
“Why do we need bolachas for the fiambre?” he asked.
They were all looking at me now.
“To make a sandwich . . .”
Nobody was breathing at this point. Mamede’s eyes had turned to slits and Ze looked like he’d just found out his winning lottery ticket was a fake.
“No,” Mamede said after a long pause. “We don’t do that.”
“No! We do something better.”
“Oh, really. What’s that?”
It was a question I regretted as soon as I asked it.
“We mix it with the farinha.”
“Yes! Farinha and fiambre. It tastes so good!”
They were all smiling now, nodding their heads in unison.
Deep breath . . . Take another deep breath . . . Just keep breathing . . .
It didn’t take long to prepare the meal (unfortunately). Ze poured the requisite mound of farinha into the dishpan while João opened the first can of fiambre with his knife. He handed the can to Ze who then used his own knife to pry out the porky contents.
I will spare you the image I had in mind upon seeing the brownish piece of “meat” slide slowly from the can while making a ghastly slurping sound. The gelatinous mass that plopped into the sand trap of farinha had no resemblance to the Spam of my youth. What I saw there was mostly fat, interlaced with bits of gray meat — an aspic if you will (no pun intended) — sitting in an oozing slick of grease that not even the dusty farinha could absorb. Thank god it wasn’t my first day out or I would have lost it right then.
After making sure every last bit was scraped from the can (and Toto too), Ze nonchalantly winged it over the side and João handed him the second one (just in time delivery). Soon there were two jelly dumplings sitting side by side in the pan, looking like twin demon spawn.
As the second can sank merrily to the bottom, Ze started to mash the greasy lumps into the farinha with a wooden spoon, mixing it all together to the consistency of grout. When he finished, he scraped off the spoon with his finger and tasted his handiwork. “Umm,” he moaned, “it’s ready!” flashing me a broad grin. Smiling weakly back, I raised my cup to the top of the icebox and hitched my head for João to fill it again.
There isn’t much point in describing the meal (I’ve blocked most of it out anyway). Prodded by the jangadeiros, who again mistook my reluctance for shyness, I did eat some of the porky mush, taking only small pinches at a time, washing it down with the sickly sweet juice. I ate it because I was hungry and the stuff was packed with calories — calories I needed right then — calories we all needed then.
Next chapter: What Goes Down Can Come Back Up