28 October, 2011 § Leave a comment
My second interview stop in Austin started and ended with some of the (in my opinion) paramount elements of Brazilian culture: parties! Coffee was involved – Casa Brasil Coffees to be exact – and my weekend encounters with the proprietors of that coffee company all began on Friday night at a party called BREWED AWAKENING. I originally learned about Casa Brasil Coffees through Elias and Ben over at Rio’s Brazilian Café on my first trip to Austin last June, but I ran out of time on that trip and was not able to make contact with anyone at Casa Brasil.
So when I arrived in the city this time I found out that Casa Brasil was hosting a shindig/benefit at a local bar for the launching of their bicycle-delivery service. Yes, it is now possible to not only get their coffee at one of the many area grocery stores, restaurants or farmers markets; it can be delivered via pedal power to a home or business too! Before arriving, I spoke briefly with Joel Shuler, an American and the owner of Casa Brasil, on the phone but had not yet met him in person. Here is a little background on Joel according to Casa Brasil’s website: “Born in Michigan and raised in Iowa, Joel’s interest in Brazilian Coffee began in his teens when he was accepted into the youth program of Gremio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense in Brazil. Though injury cut his soccer career short, his passion for Brazil remained. He learned about Brazilian coffee through months on the ground, visiting producers, co-ops, and universities to learn how quality coffee is grown and identify those growers that are producing it. One of few to have both the Q Grade Certification and the Port of Santos [city in Brazil] Cupping and Classification License, Joel holds a deep respect for those that grow, research, cup, and help bring about great coffee. He feels that every cup is a new experience, and that learning to appreciate coffee can truly add pleasure to one’s life.” This gringo guy clearly would understand why I was dedicating so much time to Brazilian culture.
When I entered the party I actually met his gorgeous, Brazilian wife Lisiane Shuler first who was selling bags of coffee and handing out flyers about the company as Austin Hipsters swigged micro-brewed beers and two lanky-yet-muscular young men pedaled their hearts out on stationary bikes in some kind of drunken competition. I introduced myself to Lisi and we got to talking…and talking…and talking! I knew immediately I had found a lady with similar interests about Brazilian culture and the world. Also quoted from Casa Brasil’s website, Lisi officially “was born and raised in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Master’s degree in Social Work. Through the Sabor e Progresso Initiative, Lisi helps Casa Brasil to empower coffee communities in her native Brazil through programs like Casa Brasil’s Merit Scholarship Program for the children of coffee producers and English classes for coffee communities. Apart from her work at Casa Brasil she has worked with Coffee Kids through the ADESPA project in Acatenango, Guatemala, and as counselor for MUSADE in Costa Rica helping victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.” Wow! AND she also helped her husband with their coffee business!
Back at the bicycle party, Joel had arrived and I was invited to join them at their home that coming Sunday for yet another party, this one involving getting my hands literally on some homemade Brazilian food and the chance to do some interviews. Some of Lisi’s friends hailing from the Brazilian state of Goiás (in the middle of the country and where the capitol Brasília is located) were coming over to make pamonha, a Brazilian-style tamale served both savory and sweet that is as popular on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro as it is in the farm country of the interior. Traditionally, pamonha is associated with the Festa Junina (June Festival) that was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and celebrates several Catholic saints and the end of the harvest season. Similar to Carnaval (but usually with more clothing involved since June is Brazil’s wintertime after all), people also like to dress up but instead here to look like “country people.” They do some dancing (a quadrilha, or type of square dance in this case), they play particular kinds of music (forró is the most popular, which personally sounds similar to what is found in Cajun Country in the U.S.); they eat special foods like pamonha and a cake made from aipim (manioc/cassava/yucca); and in general they just want an excuse to get together with friends and family and have a giant party. For me, the pamonha-making party was a great film-making and cultural opportunity, even if we were not planning to sport the gaudy costumes!
On Sunday I arrived hungry and excited to the Shuler’s place, armed with some additional filming equipment (my Canon T2i DSLR, the ZOOM audio recorder, and the Audio-Tecnica lavalier mic), and an “assistant” (my friend Adam Wetherington, a professional cook by trade) who doubled as a second cinematographer as well as another hand in the kitchen. We both learned a lot about the challenges of shooting a documentary in a group setting of strangers in extreme lighting conditions, and how to make pamonha from scratch. I also looked forward to testing my translation abilities, as almost the entire shoot would be filmed in Portuguese.
The whole process centered on Toninho and Elaine Rodrigues, a Brazilian couple whose adeptness at and zeal for making pamonha was impressive. My introduction to them was to first see Toninho sitting outside on the warm porch, hunched over a large, clear plastic container, fervently working away on a huge grater of his own design, and with a beaming smile that stayed on his face the entire day, and therefore a perfect magnet for the camera! I did not even have to ask why making pamonhas from scratch was worth all of the hard work; his blissful expression alone amid the perspiration explained it all! While Toninho was sort of the rock star, his wife Elaine was the tour manager. She hung out and enjoyed the nice weather with their young daughter in a hammock chair, and approvingly smirked at her husband’s comfortability with being center stage, all the while unassumingly directing the food preparation traffic. In the end, it was Elaine who made it all come together into a meal.
Though, let me not overlook or downplay Lisi’s role in all of this! Her colorful, bright kitchen was where milk was added to the raw corn mixture and it was seasoned (either with sugar or salt), stuffed into corn husks, expertly folded and packaged (under Elaine’s guidance), and finally boiled to form individual pamonhas. Lisi also was in charge of baking fresh pão de queijo (our appetizers) and preparing the side dishes for the savory pamonha (tender, shredded and fried beef, and diced, sauteed zucchini). Delicious! Both of these ladies more than anyone else also endured the sweltering heat in the kitchen as the Texas sun got higher in the sky outside, and the boiling water, hot oven, and multiple stove burners turned the inside into a realistic reproduction of the tropical weather common during Brazilian summers.
Like many Brazilian gatherings I have been to, the atmosphere was light-hearted, communal, and full of animated conversations. Kids, pets and other guests (including another American woman who was fluent in Portuguese) roamed in and out of rooms. The women gathered on the porch to chat or they helped out in the kitchen. The men also did their part with the food preparation, but more often than not they paused in front of the big-screen television set to check in on the progress of their preferred futebol (soccer) team as they competed in a match being beamed in from Brazil via satellite. Toninho also pulled me aside to show me YouTube videos about his hometown of Goiânia and how proud he is of it. As he stated several times during the official interview, eating pamonhas was a way to conserve a bond to Brazil that he was willing to move away from, but not completely abandon. Food provided a tangible medium through which he could express his longing to be near Brazil again, even if just for an afternoon.
So what about the food? Well, if the speed at which everyone swallowed first the pães de queijo (how it is spelled in plural form), then the savory, “entrée” pamonhas with the beef, zucchini and rice, and finally the sweetened variety as dessert was an indication of how spectacular it all tasted, then know that after almost five hours of preparation, plates were licked clean and everyone was stuffed within probably twenty minutes after being served! To me, everything was perfect that day: time spent with friends both familiar and new, there was sunshine and nice weather, we were given a warm reception into an unknown place, the food was unforgettable, new kitchen skills were learned, Brazilian futebol was on the TV (though not my team Botafogo), informative film footage was shot, conversations were had in my adopted language, and above all I was reaffirmed that I was headed in the right direction with this project. Phew!
Bye, bye for now Austin! I hope to see you again soon, and this time for a much longer spell of time (i.e., as my new home). After all, if my new Brazilian friends can call it home, then I think it is also the right place for me!
26 October, 2011 § Leave a comment
Yep, I went back. That little, ol’ country-city town has me smitten! I also wanted to do some actual filming this time so I first returned to Rio’s Brazilian Café (where I visited last June) to catch up with co-owner Elias Martins who is originally from the marvelous city of Rio de Janeiro. (When I was there before I spoke mainly with Elias’s partner Ben Googins: an aficionado on Brazil to be sure, but also an American, so by default he was sort of disqualified from being a focus of my interview.) This time around I was invited into the inner sanctum of the kitchen to see where Elias, Ben, and the rest of the staff make all the magic happen. We chatted (gossiped really); we snacked on pão de queijo (cheese bread); we salivated over some of the tropical ingredients that are essential to Brazilian cooking (manioc root, coffee, squashes, fruits like mango and passion fruit); then we got down to this business of an interview.
When I first began to ask Elias questions I got a little nervous. I would ask how cooking Brazilian food on a daily basis and literally having his hands in the recipes of his birthplace kept him connected to his cultural roots. But surprisingly to me, he would reply that he does not have strong ties to his Brazilian cultural heritage, and that he prefers hamburgers to feijoada (Brazil’s national dish). Elias did not seem to have the knee-jerk sentimental reaction towards Brazilian food and cultural memories in the way that I had seen invoked from other people born in that same South American country. Were my previous observations incorrect? Was my entire project one big false extrapolation of generalizations that I had made of a culture not my own by birth? I could just hear Malinowski applauding me. On the other hand, maybe I was actually hearing Durkheim reminding me that the actions of one individual do not always reflect the characteristics of an entire society, especially in our modern world of globalization and the constant movement and adaptation of cultures. No one person can be a cultural ambassador to her or his home country of origin. Nor should they! After all, every time I traveled abroad and someone implored me to give an explanation for the societal ways of the United States or expected me to only want to eat hot dogs, they were always sorely disappointed by my antagonistic responses. Why should a Brazilian living here be any different?
After reviewing our interview, I also stepped back and tried to temper my over-analytical mind and just listen to what Elias had said. I realized that what he had actually tried to get across was that he indeed does love food from Brazil, he is grateful that his grandmother had shared recipes and preparation techniques with him when he was younger, that it was great to grow up tasting and smelling delicious regional ingredients, and that he today has a knack for translating those memories into Brazilian-style dishes here in the U.S. Cultural heritage is not only about links to the past; memories of the past have to continue living into the present and future if they are to survive. Updates to conventional ways of cooking therefore are a natural evolution in food culture.
Elias demonstrated this notion by not keeping to the cuff on his “traditional” recipes. For instance, in all of my travels around Brazil I had never heard of using any other ingredients in pão de queijo other than manioc flour, water, salt, a strong-tasting cheese, and some kind of fat, usually lard or vegetable oil. But Elias had gone and added basil and roasted red peppers as optional flavors! O que é isso? (What the heck?) True, his choices were unconventional, but it equally made sense to include such flavors in order to impress the cosmopolitan tastes of the foodie residents of Austin, not to mention that Elias just liked basil and roasted red pepper himself!
In the interview he also mentioned that he had the training and skill to make more upscale Brazilian cuisine (like what is found in churrascarias, for example), but opted instead to prepare “everyday” foods that every person could afford to eat and enjoy. Making changes to “common” dishes is also more acceptable in general, so the types of food that Elias served gave him more freedom to experiment. Most people are alright with adding a pinch of an unfamiliar spice to a mainstream dish, or substituting one unusual ingredient in place of another known one. The complete alteration of an expensive cut of meat, however, takes more convincing. The seemingly fine line between a chef trying to be innovative or just plain shameless is easier to test when making dishes that she or he has made a thousand times. Such creative licensing clearly delighted Elias.
On the day that I was there inquires into my love life, and freshly fried aipim (also called mandioca in Portuguese, or yucca, cassava, or manioc in English, it is a root vegetable similar in taste to a potato but a little starchier and sweeter) were what brought a smile to Elias’s face. Brazilian food may have been what originally introduced us to each other, but it was American Pop Culture and a good laugh about life that connected us. And that relationship gets at the very essence of what my project wants to examine. By the way Elias, I like Cher too!