It was that time again – farinha time. 😦
Saying he was hungry, Mamede ducked into the hold and started passing up the cooking gear: the condiment box, wood for the fire, the stew pot, a frying pan. The fire can was already on deck, sitting beside the icebox where it had been placed after lunch. Fire vs. ice.
Looking at the former auto lubricant container — dented and charred, holes through its sides — hard to believe it was ever new. How long had they used it to cook their food? A year, maybe two? I wondered what type can would replace it when the time came. Would Esso renew the sponsorship, or would another company step in to take its place? Castrol, Shell, BP? And let’s not forget Petrobras — Brazil’s very own petro-powerhouse. Given a choice, I’d go with Petrobras. Despite all the corruption I still like the colors of their logo — green and yellow.
Mamede climbed out of the hold clasping something in his right hand. At first I didn’t recognize what he had — it seemed so out of place. And it was out of place: a one-pound package of spaghetti pasta. When I finally realized what I was looking at, I caught my breath. What’s going on? Am I dreaming? Is this for real? Deprived of my normal diet for so very long, I was having a hard time putting two and two together.
When Mamede saw me staring, mouth agape and looking bewildered, he stopped and raised the package above his head to gain our attention. For its tubular shape and straw like color, the pasta could have easily passed for an ancient scroll (albeit, one wrapped in cellophane). The fact that Mamede looked so perfect for the part — unshaven and plainly dressed, barefoot and browned by the sun — only contributed to the biblical image. Pausing for effect, he waved the package back and forth and said in a loud, clear voice,
“Today for dinner we try something new — Macarrão!” Macaroni!
My jaw just about hit the deck when I heard this. I could not believe it. Clearly God was using this humble fisherman to speak directly to me:
Figlio mio. Lascia la brutta farina. Vieni a mangiare la pasta!
(Of course, we all know that God speaks in Italian.)
This was my kind of revelation. Had Mamede’s words been followed by bolts of lightning, hailing trumpets, or a chorus of mermaids rising up from the water, I would not have been surprised. You never know. . . Instead, the sign I received was no less prophetic: a sharp kick in my gut, as if a strang-ulating volvulus had just let go. Despite the pain, or perhaps because of it, I knew it was a good sign — a sign that my luck was finally changing, if only for one meal. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.
Ze and João didn’t know what to make of the change in menu. Questioningly they looked at Mamede and then at each other. After several seconds João broke the silence by asking, “Mamede . . . how do you eat these things?”
Caught off guard, Mamede slowly lowered his arm. “Well, João . . .” groping for words, glancing quickly at me, “you cook them . . . and then you eat them. Just like the farinha!” he concluded, pinching his fingers over the package. I kept quiet.
João was still not satisfied. “Then why don’t we eat the farinha?”
It was a simple enough question. But for the silence it received, João could have been asking for an explanation of the Higgs boson. Several uncomfortable seconds passed before Mamede finally spoke up.
“Because, João, it is good to try something new. And besides . . .” lifting the roll of pasta again and pointing it directly at me, “in America they like to eat this.”
Everyone had said that Mamede was the best fisherman in the village, but nobody had mentioned anything about his political ability. With the blame so nimbly shifted onto my shoulders, I felt the full force of João’s frown bearing down, and worse — much worse — Ze was no longer smiling at me.
Where Mamede had acquired this bit of geo-culinary information, I could only guess. It mattered little. The fact that he had brought the pasta solely for my benefit was truly touching. I wasn’t going to diminish that act of kindness by correcting him on a mere technicality. More important still, and by light-years, I wasn’t going to risk the one chance I had to ditch the farinha, if only for one meal. So with all the gravitas I could muster, I turned to João and said, “Yes we do. Everyone!”
That sealed it. Certain that Mamede had never cooked a noodle in his life, I took the package from his still outstretched hand and told him I would prepare the meal. Visibly relieved, he busied himself setting up the fire can. Now I just needed to figure out what to do with the pasta.
Where there’s a will — there’s a way. Where there’s life — there’s hope. And hope, when it springs — springs eternal, especially when it springs over forty miles offshore on the deck of a dinky jangada. The fact that hope had manifested itself in a one-pound package of spaghetti pasta only shows how desperate I was. At that very moment little else would have made me happier. Had someone offered to replace each noodle in the pack with a crisp hundred-dollar bill, I would have laughed out loud and shouted, NO WAY! What good was money to me out there? What could I buy with it? Could I count it? Ooh! . . . Could I drink it to slake my thirst? Ah! . . . Could I eat the notes to sate my hunger? Maybe. . . Would the paper have tasted better than the farinha? Most definitely!
The devil is in the details (to use another cliche). The challenge was not only what to make but how to make it. Having never cooked on a one-burner Esso can before, I was more than a little nervous. The mark of any good chef is the ability to whip up a tasty meal with whatever they find in the cupboard before them. In my case the cupboard was below me — I was floating on it — and there wasn’t much to work with. There were tomatoes, some vegetables, cilantro, and fish — a freaking box-load of fish! Not bad really, but two essential ingredients for making a good sauce were missing: garlic and olive oil.
My choices quickly narrowed down to two options (there wasn’t much else). The first was a pasta primavera — frying the tomato and veggies together, tossing this into the cooked spaghetti. This would be a good first-time pasta dish for the jangadeiros — a gateway dish, if you will — incorporating all the ingredients they were familiar with (but one). And as a side dish I would fry up some fish.
Tasty, yes, but I was leaning more toward the second option. Not only was it bolder in character, it had the advantage of requiring fewer steps. The second option was just the same as the first, but with the fish added to the veggies so everything fried together. The result would be a modified puttanesca sauce (a highly modified one). The more I thought about it, the more I liked the puttanesca option. And I knew I had picked the right one when I heard João’s response to the name of the dish:
“WE’RE GOING TO EAT A WHAT?”
Next chapter: Far-asta