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 an obvious 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 thankfully gone on a diversionary walk during the morning’s activities, was now back at the front door pounding away. Ze couldn’t help but notice my desire, and he tapped right into it.
“This will be a very good lunch,” he said, his eyes gleaming.
“Yes?” My voice trembled with anticipation.
“Oh, yes—the best one!”
Ze was in charge of 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 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 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, the 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, then cut the meat into thick red blocks. All of the pieces were tossed into the farinha pan for a final rinsing with seawater.
Glistening in the sun, those large chunks of tuna had me spellbound. They were so thick and juicy, so supple and tender, 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 meaty block — just one — and pop it into my mouth. Ummm!
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 bottles of ice-cold 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, could smell the heady aroma of grilled fish in the air, could taste the savory juices bursting in my mouth — my olfactory receptors rocketing to new heights! I closed my eyes and swallowed yet another mouthful of stale saliva.
Like a kid outside a candy store with his nose on the 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, modestly.
“Oh, really?” The easier the better, I thought.
“Yes! First I fry the fish in oil,” seductively tapping the pile of tuna with the blade of his knife.
“Yes. . .” Oh, yes!
“Then I put in the onion, pepper and tomato,” now pointing at the vegetables João had just chopped up.
My God! Tuna fajitas! This was even better than I 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 with a rapt expression. “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 whispered, “I—I think it will be good, Ze. Yes. . . very. . . good. . .”
“Yes!” he happily gushed. “And now the fire is ready, so we can begin.”
Ze prepared the dish just as he described it, except for the stirring part — that was much more vigorous than demonstrated. I have to say, seeing those beautiful blocks of tuna get shredded to bits in the pan of mucky farinha is something I will never, ever forget — no matter how bad the dementia gets!
Next chapter: Bitching & Moaning