I was sitting across the hatch cover from Ze, looking down at the skipjack tuna he had just retrieved from the icebox. “I caught this fish,” he said with pride, running his hand over the tuna’s slick side. It really was a beautiful fish — a butterball — so plump and meaty, so full of culinary potential.
My hunger, which had gone on a diversionary walk through the morning’s activities, was now back at the front door pounding away. Ze saw my interest and he tapped right into it.
“This will be a very good lunch,” he said, eyes gleaming.
“Yes?” My voice trembled with anticipation.
“Oh, yes. The best one!”
Ze was in charge of preparing the meal and I eagerly watched as he dressed the fish on the deck by the rail, first gutting it, washing it, then chopping off its head with a few swift strokes of his knife. Returning the fish to the hatch cover, he proceeded to fillet the meat from one side — running his sharp blade along the fish’s spine while peeling back the flesh with his other hand. The slab of tuna he held up when done was about two inches thick and almost a foot long. I nearly swooned when I saw it, and there was still another side to go.
Lying side by side on the hatch cover, those two crimson steaks looked better than bars of gold bullion. (You can’t eat metal.) I was panting again, a dog begging for scraps, following Ze’s every move as he neatly trimmed the skin from each slab. He then cut the meat into thick red blocks, tossing all of the pieces into the farinha pan for a final rinsing with seawater.
Those glistening red cubes had me spellbound. I had never seen tuna so thick and fresh, so tender and juicy, so perfectly square. It was enough to make even the most obsessive-compulsive, sushi-loving heart go pitapat. How I longed to reach over and grab a chunk — just one — and pop it into my watering mouth.
I started to have visions: green wasabi islands, floating in a sea of low-sodium soy sauce, lapping on the shores of pickled ginger — miles and miles of sweet, pickled ginger. And towering over those ginger beaches, like the granite domes of Pão de Açucar, Dois Irmãos, and Pedra da Gavea, were ice-cold bottles of Japanese beer — the big ones — to wash it all down.
Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo–oh-oh!
I knew they wouldn’t eat the fish raw, so my fantasies turned to how Ze would cook it. Images of exquisitely fried tuna now pervaded my thoughts. I could see the blocks browning in the pan, smell the heady aroma of sizzling tuna in the air, taste the savory juices bursting in my mouth — my olfactory receptors rocketing to stratospheric heights. I closed my eyes and swallowed another mouthful of stale saliva.
Like a kid outside a candy store with his nose pressed to glass, I looked up at Ze and just had to ask, “So Ze, how do you cook the fish?”
“Ei—it’s easy,” he said.
“Oh, really?” The easier the better, I thought.
Seductively he tapped the pile of tuna with the blade of his knife.
“First I fry the fish in oil.”
“Yes. . .” Oh, yes!
He now pointed at the vegetables João had finished dicing.
“Then I put in the onion, pepper and tomato.”
My God — tuna fajitas! This was even better than I had imagined.
“Wonderful, Ze, wonderful!”
“Yes,” he smiled, and then his expression became serious.
“But that’s not the best part.”
“No?” What could be better?
“No—the best part is the last part.”
“The last part?” The last part?
“Yes—the last part.”
“What’s the last part, Ze?”
He wrapped his hands around the handle of his knife and extended his arms out in front with the blade pointing down. He then proceeded to stir the air in slow, ominous circles.
“I add water and much farinha and mix it all together.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed in rapt delight. “It tastes so good.”
Suddenly his arms stopped stirring and he asked, “What do you think?”
Deep breath . . . Take another deep breath . . . Just keep breathing . . .
Like a drunk driver trying to pass a roadside sobriety test, I looked back at Ze and croaked, “Well—I—I think it will be good. . .”
“Yes! And now the fire is ready, so we can start.”
Ze prepared the dish just as he described it, except for the stirring part. That was more vigorous than demonstrated. Seeing those beautiful blocks of tuna get shredded into the mucky farinha paste is something I will never, ever forget — no matter how bad the dementia gets!
Next chapter: Bitching & Moaning