If only I could whistle, I would have been whistling right then — whistling while I filled the pot with seawater to cook the pasta (we were still rationing our fresh water), and whistling when I placed that pot on top of the burning branches in the fire can.
Both Mamede and Ze stood close by, fascinated by the preparation. When I bent the stiff noodles into the hot water with no breaks, their eyes widened in surprise. When I explained the finer points of pasta al dente (as fine as I could in my limited Portuguese), they listened attentively to each and every word. And when I removed a partially cooked noodle from the pot and held it out to show them, they nearly bumped their heads together, leaning in for a closer look.
Ze was the most interested. Gingerly he lifted the noodle from my palm and brought it up to his nose for a sniff. Nothing. . . He then took a bight. As he chewed, his eyes narrowed, trying to discern a flavor. What does a strand of partially cooked pasta taste like? A chewy nothing, and his blank stare confirmed it.
“It’s like the farinha,” I said, seeing that a cloud had formed over his brow.
“It will taste better with the sauce.”
While this was going on, João cut up the fish and vegetables following my instructions. How had he become my personal sous chef? Low man on the totem pole! That he was still unhappy with the menu change was made very clear by his constant grumbling, like moaning background noise, and the aggressive way he worked his knife. He took particular interest in the mackerel, chopping off its head in one clean stroke, then carving up the flesh as if it was part of my forearm.
When making pasta the noodles are usually cooked last, right before the meal is served. But as we had only one fire can and a limited supply of fuel, I thought it best to start them first. That way I could remove the pot from the fire early, freeing the can to fry up the sauce, while the spaghetti continued to cook in the hot water. It worked like a charm. Fifteen minutes later the fish sauce was done and I poured it over the steaming pile of pasta that Ze had transferred to the dishpan.
I now reached into the condiment box and pulled out the bottle of palm oil. Handing this to Ze, I told him to drizzle some of the oil over the dish while I tossed it all together. No, I don’t know how to say “drizzle” in Portuguese. What I actually said was, “Add a little and I mix.” And when the mixing was done we were ready to eat.
Some of us were more ready than others.
As we stood around the icebox to begin our meal, there was only one smiling face. But how I was smiling! This was normally the time when the jangadeiros were happiest — most animated and talkative. But now the tables were turned. Now the silence was so physical, anyone could have hooked it with the gaff. Studying their faces I could understand why. The dish before them was not what they were used to. It was not their farinha.
Mamede was the most stoic of the three. With serious eyes and a fixed expression, he gazed at the pan like a stone idol. Give him a bushy mustache and pince-nez glasses — he could have easily passed as Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore. João on the other hand was much more demonstrative. Never one to hide his emotions, he grimaced like a child who had just been told to finish his Brussels sprouts. Ze’s look fell somewhere in the middle — eyes wide open, locked on the pan. His was the classic deer in the headlights stare, where he knew he was screwed and was powerless to stop it.
Peering at the dishpan I tried to see it though their eyes. I imagined that this was the first bowl of spaghetti pasta ever placed before me. Viewing it this way I could understand their reluctance. The dish was not very appealing: an oily pile of twisting noodles, looking more than a little wormy. Had any of those noodles started moving right then, four separate hands would have grabbed that pan to wing it overboard (mine included). But nothing moved and the men remained quiet, waiting for some direction.
Taking my cue, I reached out my right hand and took a pinch of the pasta. It was still hot to touch, but not enough to keep me from tilting my head back and dropping the full load directly into my mouth.
“Ummm,” I moaned. “Oh, yes. . . Good. Very good!”
João shuddered at this.
How can I describe the flavor? It was like my tongue had just been freed from solitary confinement. A big fan of anchovies, I was concerned the mackerel would make a weak substitute. I needn’t have worried. Not only did the fish hold its own against the other ingredients, it seemed to strike the right balance with the cilantro. Because of this and the palm oil, I was immediately reminded of another Brazilian dish from the northeast—moqueca—a fish stew that simmers in coconut milk, garlic, and malagueta peppers. These additional ingredients would have made the dish perfect. And as soon as I thought of it, I knew I would have to try it when I got back home: a thickened moqueca over a bed of pasta. Penne would be ideal.
This was not a puttanesca we were having but a Moqueca Napolitana. Recipe
Both Ze and João now turned to their mestre. Mamede would have to go first. (It had been his idea, after all.) Despite the growing pressure from his crew, he would not be rushed. (As captain he could do what he damn well pleased.) For what seemed like ages he stood perfectly still, scowling at the pan. The silence was electric.
Mamede finally broke the spell by blinking slowly and clearing his throat, “Ahem . . .” He blinked again, even slower this time, then started to inch his hand toward the pan. The closer it got the more his expression seemed to harden. Just as the hand reached the pan’s lip, it stopped and hovered over the pasta like a frozen claw. A battle was obviously raging inside of Mamede, the outcome of which was anybody’s guess.
Clearing his throat once again, “Ahem. . .” Mamede now spoke.
“Well. . . you know. . . I. . . I think this macarrão would be very good with some farinha added to it.” He quickly looked around. “What do you think?”
Oh, no . . . no, no, no . . . please no . . . please . . .
Not waiting for a reply, Mamede dug his fingers into the pasta and pulled out a handful. Dropping this into the empty pot beside him, he lifted the quimanga from the espeque and removed its lid. He then reached inside and grabbed a fistful of farinha, which he poured like sand over the little pile of pasta. Using his fingers, he mixed the two together until the noodles were thoroughly breaded.
Now it was my turn to shudder.
Transfixed, all of us watched as Mamede took a pinch of the furry noodles and brought it up to his nose for a whiff. He held it there for a few seconds, seeming unsure, but then opened his mouth and quickly shoved it all in.
Everybody held their breath.
Eyes clamped shut, Mamede looked like a child who had just taken a spoonful of castor oil. He only had to pinch his nose to complete the image. But as soon as he started to chew the image changed. The muscles in his face quickly relaxed and his eyes blinked open. He looked surprised. He looked relieved. And by the time he had finished swallowing, he even look happy.
“Hey—this is good,” he declared. “This is really good. Try it, Ze.”
He pushed the pot across the lid to Ze.
As proeiro, first mate, Ze needed to follow his mestre’s orders. It was a matter of duty and honor. From what I had witnessed during my short time on board, everything about Ze shouted duty and honor. But now he hesitated. Now he didn’t seem so sure. Was this pushing it too far?
Just because you’re my mestre doesn’t mean I’m going to jump off a cliff with you.
Ze towed the line. Slowly he reached into the pot and took a pinch of the breaded pasta. Like Mamede he brought it to his nose for a sniff before opening his mouth and dropping it in. And just like Mamede his expression changed as soon as he started to chew. The cloud over his brow quickly evaporated and the sun came out to shine again. Ze was back to his old smiling self.
“Yes—it really is good!” he chirped, pushing the pot over to João.
Despite the ringing endorsements from his senior officers, João was not a man to be influenced by hierarchy (at least not one where he was low). João was an anarchist at heart, and at that particular moment he looked like an anarchist who would soon lose his dinner. (I could fully empathize with this.) Glowering at the pot, he swatted the air with his fist and said, “No, no, I’m not so hungry. I just want to have some fish.” And with that he pushed the pot sideways, right in front of me, and reached into the dishpan to pull out a large piece of mackerel. O ye of little faith.
Now everyone was looking at me (of even lesser faith).
It is one of life’s more brutal ironies, one of its cruel little tricks, that a feeling of utter joy and elation can be so easily ripped asunder. All it takes is one wrong word or look. Usually it involves a matter of the heart. My crushing blow came from a small pile of farinha breaded pasta.
Quickly I flashed back over my recent history. What have I done to deserve this? Was I not properly thankful for something? Was I too quick to judge? Was it that large second helping of chocolate mousse I piled on my plate in the all-you-can-eat dessert room of that wonderful restaurant in São Paulo? (Figueira Rubaiyat) Yes! Surely this gluttony had sealed my fate.
As if in a nightmare, I saw my hand move slowly toward the pot. Like a zombie, the hand glided forward on its own, wholly dislocated from the rest of my body. I had no control. Trapped in a culinary horror, all I could do was watch. The zombie hand reached into the pot and grabbed some of the hybrid concoction—the far-asta—or pa-rinha—uma piranha—WHATEVER! The Zombie hand then lifted the gritty substance to my mouth, which opened involuntarily, as if it too was being controlled by some alien force that had taken over my body to perform bizarre experiments on human eating habits. The Zombie hand then pushed the pasta into my mouth—In you go!—not very delicately as some of the sauce wound up on my chin. (We would have to practice our fine motor skills.) My mouth then snapped shut and I was commanded to chew—which I did—mechanically—CHEW-CHEW-CHEW-CHEW—eyes glazed over in total submission. Thirty-two chews later I was ordered to swallow—GULP!
“Isn’t it good?” Mamede asked, as the hairy lump skidded to my stomach.
“Ummm. . . well. . . different.”
His smile widened and before I knew it, Mamede tilted the quimanga over the dishpan and covered the pasta with a thick blanket of farinha. And quietly I watched — just as quietly as João — as he mixed it all together.
Next chapter: Beautiful Miscegenation