If only I could whistle, I would have been whistling right then — whistling while I partially filled the pot with some 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 bite, and 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 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 a pasta dish, the noodles are usually cooked last, right before the meal is served. But we only had one fire can and a limited supply of fuel, so 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 finished cooking in the still 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 (the farinha pan).
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 thick you could have hooked it with the gaff. Studying their faces I could understand why. The dish in front of them was not what they were used to. It was not their farinha.
True to form, Mamede was the most stoic of the bunch. 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; he knew he was screwed and was powerless to stop it.
Peering at the dishpan I tried to see it through 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 exactly 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 (including mine). 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 back my head and dropping the full load into my expectant mouth.
“Ummm,” I moaned, rolling my eyes. “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. As soon as I realized this, I knew I would have to try it when I got back home: a thickened moqueca over a bed of pasta. Penne would be perfect.
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. (This had been his idea, after all.) Despite the pressure from his crew he would not be rushed. For what seemed like ages he stood perfectly still, scowling at the pan. The silence was electric. Nobody knew what would happen next.
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. Clearly a battle was raging inside of him, 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 then lifted the quimanga from the espeque and removed its lid. Reached inside, he grabbed a fistful of the farinha which he poured like sand over the little pile of pasta. He mixed the two together with his fingers 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 sniff. He held it there for a few seconds, seeming unsure, then opened his mouth and quickly shoved it in.
We were all holding our breath.
Eyes clamped shut, Mamede looked like a child who had just taken a spoonful of sour medicine. 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 began to relax and his eyes blinked open. He looked surprised. He looked relieved. By the time he finished swallowing, he even looked happy.
“Hey—this is good,” he declared. “This is really good. Try it!”
And with that 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 wasn’t 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. Like Mamede he brought it to his nose for a whiff before opening his trap 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 is good,” he said, pushing the pot over to João.
Despite the ringing endorsements from his two 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, then 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 that gluttony had sealed my fate.
As if in a nightmare I saw my hand moving slowly toward the pot. Like a zombie, the hand glided forward, 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 alien forces 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 work on 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 poured a thick blanket of farinha over the large pile of pasta. And quietly I watched — just as quietly as João — as he mixed it all together.
Next chapter: Beautiful Miscegenation