21. 1. 2021

English Version | Stomach, a mirror in our gut

by Nuno Miguel Dias


I bet this isn’t the first time you’re reading: “We are what we eat”. That’s because it might be true. And beyond our personal sphere, there is a whole world. There, what each culture eats, and all the traditions that revolve around the act of eating, reflect it. Is it because of all those reflections that the kitchen is the only division in the house where no one hangs a mirror? Are there no studies about that? That is pertinent!

That one night when we were invited for a feast at a friend’s house won’t leave our minds. As in almost every other house of every other friend, we’re always offered the option to leave our coat on the bed of the double room. The only thing is, this time, there is a little detail that stands out. The first thought invading our brain is obvious: “What a bunch of impudent folks, these obscene libertines”, as the ruthless images of a private life we would never dare to suppose irrevocably cross our mind. Heroic Closed Boxes (uttana sampuna), vigorous Blooms (utphallaka), athletic Lotus (padmasana), robust Queens of Heaven (indranika) and yet another roll of numerous positions found in the Kama Sutra by the naughty Vatsyayana that, sill to this day, 18 centuries later, fascinate. All because of a giant mirror on the ceiling. And we thought we were the ones being largely forward when opting for a mirrored closet on the side of the bed, so that we could admire, in its reflection, all the art of our own copulation, at least on good days, which is when we go out for dinner, to the theater and so on. Surely, nothing of the sort crosses the minds of those who hang mirrors outside of their homes, as they’re probably more concentrated, with that decorative choice, in keeping away evil-eyes and jealousies. Then there is, of course, the mirror in the bathroom, whose dimensions vary between the reflection of our modesty and the gigantic splendor of greatness. Some people would put it in the hallway, inside their closet, and there’s even that one person that took it up to the attic and left it there, where it stands collecting dust, serving as inspiration for any second-rate horror movie. “But what the hell does that have to do with the theme gourmet?”, you might be asking right about now. Everything. At least if anyone cared to explain why the heck is the kitchen the only part of a house where no one anticipates a need, whether it be decorative or functional, for the hanging of a mirror. Being in the kitchen that one of the most important pillars of our life is developed, it’s only natural that no one wanted to bring looking-glasses in there. Especially because around pots and pans there are already enough underlying superstitions. These go far beyond food itself, as do the 12 raisins eaten at the stroke of midnight, the spilled wine over which one shouldn’t cry, the table around which 13 people should never sit, the piece of wedding cake that should be put away in the freezer or the bread that shouldn’t be faced downwards (my grandmother would immediately slap my hand saying “I did not pay for a bread turned upside down”).

There’s no such thing as bad timing for a little nostalgia exercise. And it’s time. We’re already behind. Especially because we’re reaching a point where memories over which I will write about divide the young, who are absolutely clueless, and the older, whose eyes will sparkle in a second. Want to see it? Lisbon’s Common Fair… See? Tears are not allowed, ok? It was born in Palhavã, where today we can find the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, on the 10th of June 1943, by the suggestion of Leitão de Barros and João Pereira da Rosa, the director of the paper O Século. It would be a way to fund the Balnear Colony of that same paper (created in 1927), that allowed less fortunate children from the neighborhoods of Lisbon (and there were so many of them, back then), to experience their dream vacation. Many grandparents and parents of those who now read this text pledged their love near the Lago dos Namorados (if the father or grandfather in question were discrete enough to ride the Rotor, also known as Cyclotron, famous and very sought-after by youngsters as it blew ladies’ skirts up), they rode on fair cars, the phantom train, the carousels, the roller-coaster, and the giant wheel, they went to astrologists so they could read their palms and watched, heartbroken, to the performance of Henrique Amaral, a teenager that would take his Well of Death, already with an established family, to the new location of the Fair, in 1961, and remain there until its closure, in 2003. He continued to take his spectacle throughout the whole of Portugal up until he was 90, but it was there, in Entrecampos, that he captivated me. Though it wasn’t just about him. Besides the bunch of annoying people that, from the entrance of the Ballerina (that centrifugal carousel, in front of the little tent with the sign Vinhos da Mêda), a street of restaurants (the Oh Hipóloto would to this day be the elected choice of my university class when it came to dinner parties that would always end up with fries), tried to convince everyone that their sardines were the best (a custom that was picked up at the Portas de Santo Antão street and that still endures today), and the furniture pavilion where my parents always made a point to go in, Lisbon’s Common Fair was much more than a child’s dream. It patterned Portugal. There were neither “preppies” nor “thugs”. There was none of that talk about “the folk from the outskirts and their August fairs that are held to welcome the immigrants returning in the late summer”. It normalized fun and it leveled Lisbon, the capital, without its superiority tweaks, to everyone, coming from everywhere. Back at mines, there was a jar where, when possible, escudos were placed so that, the next summer, many loops could be enjoyed onboard the carousel and infamous phantom train. The one that was sure to make us laugh our brains out would always be the House of Mirrors, a small space where our reflections and the ones of others, whether concave or convex or both, took our breath away. This distortion of our shape, today more than ever, occurs within our eating habits. Except no one is laughing at that. More than the eventual jealousy the new generations might nurture out of never having attended Lisbon’s Common Fair should do so when it comes to the peace of mind, absence of guilt, and inexistent concern over how we ate, both at the end of the night and before entering the premises, a churro or even a rind of meat in bread.

The Portuguese equivalent to fast food is roasted chicken. Or at least it was, for many years. Because in the meantime, globalization was the worst thing that ever happened to us. Food-wise, to Portuguese people. We’re the fourth country with higher rates of obesity in Europe. How did we get here? With a lot of chewing of the wrong things. It would be unfair though, to exclusively blame the big fast-food chains. If we were to go down that path, we’d have to end up vilifying those who trade a plate of fried horse mackerels in a local restaurant for an epic sushi face stuffing in an all-you-can-eat managed by Chinese people, where the aquaculture salmon is the king of daily orders. “Back in the old days”, my mom used to go pick up a roasted chicken from the barbeque once every blue moon. She would justify it with a simple phrase: “This can’t be a recurrent meal, these are aviary chickens”, proclaimed while indulging in yet another Pala Pala potato chip, the only brand of fries Portuguese people respected, that would also be sold at the beach by the same man that would also carry Epá, Perna de Pau, Super Maxi and, of course, the biscuits língua da sogra. Nowadays it's nearly impossible to acquire, whether in a big city or a medium-sized town, a roasted chicken that didn’t come from the aviary. I understand now, given the State of Things. Out of personal experience. Being a kid of the 80s, I was bombarded by an imaginary food concept that originated in Hollywood and was as different from ours as it was fascinating. At the beginning of ET, Elliot drops a pizza box that was meant for his brother’s friends while they played poker. Today, we think “oh man, I really feel like pizza now” and we call one of the dozens of available pizza places we know are available for that service. But I couldn’t! And I wanted it so bad. Pizza? Where? In some other movie, some other actor took a bite of a juicy hamburger… What would that taste like? I didn’t know. Though I confess I dreamt about it so much that I remember clearly the first bite I ever took, at the Sandwich Bar on Caparica’s Coast, at the first burger joint in Portugal. In snack bars there were hot dogs, yes, but they were ridiculous: two canned sausages, cut vertically, fried, and slammed on plain bread. It took many years to overcome the charm that marketing incurs on a child, to then realize that nothing tops a bifana de tasco. If we’re all in, then we’ll have a plate of pork bowls with white beans, a side of smoked chorizo with a glass of second-rate liquor, plus a little pork’s ear salad and fried calamari. But then again, assume it as the excess it is. Only once in a long while. And let’s push it all down with some red because sodas just leave everyone burping.

Do you know what a stew of Alentejo’s beans is? I’ll proceed to explain. It’s good. And healthy. Because there are beans in it, pumpkin, carrots and a lot, and I mean a lot, of mint. Except there’s also chicken in it, veal, lamb, and pork generally. In particular, ears, bacon, bowls, black chorizo, and white chorizo. What makes this a healthy meal? Not its content, that’s for sure. But its form. It is a full-on feast. Therefore, according to tradition, it is reserved for special occasions. Which is like saying, very few times a year. When the whole family is together. Plus, amidst it all, my grandfather personified what, many years later, would be considered a pillar of the so-called Mediterranean diet, intangible patrimony of humanity. The first thing would be, of course, to fill a glass of red wine. Then, the bread would be torn into little pieces into the bottom of a soup plate, the “almoçadeira”. The broth of the stew would then be taken out with a big spoon, the “caço”, to be spread over the bread. On the other hand, we, the dandies, would start filling everything with fat meat while he, consumed as the ”sopinhas” were, would “go fishing” for a little piece of chorizo that he’d place on top of some bread and cut them, one at a time, with his little pocket knife. This was his lunch. What was of interest in the whole scene was, of course, the flavor, which didn’t require huge quantities to be experienced. But also, the scenery. The entire family would come together around a huge table, his eyes would tear up with the thought of having us all there, a huge smile whenever me and my sister, already born in Lisbon and with no visible ties to the country (Santa Luzia, Ourique), would call each other “bros”. This set the tone for my life and now, that other things cloud my memory, I face it as something we all must try to come back to. If we’re no longer able to spread our culture, that became irredeemably occidental, let us mirror, at least, our origins. Let us search for them. And when we find them, let us turn them into law.

In Portuguese culture, and up until the arrival of this uncontrolled waste era, the soup was, in fact, the meal itself. The “conduit”, commonly known as the dish that follows soup, wasn’t always there. In Alentejo, a region that has always been the most punished by hunger, the definition is different: “something you eat with bread”. Usually, a small portion of sausage hanging from the fireplace in the kitchen. Or a piece of pork meat that, after the killing of the animal, would be placed on a clay pot and covered with “colored fat” (a pepper seasoning) so that it could be preserved throughout the entire year. And a historically soup-fed country is, necessarily, a humble country in its inception. Some will say we’re more than simple outcasts, distinct and sober. That we’re often submissive and overruled. No. Or at least, not for long. It’s one thing to have needs, but to be mediocre is another thing entirely. And that’s where the magic of our gastronomy comes into place. We’ve managed to, with so little, produce the richest, tastiest cuisine in the world. We’ve never succumbed to the opulence of the French, neither to the complex Indian spices, to the blown-out-of-proportion pasta dishes of the Italian, the crazy search for animal protein of the Chinese nor the incessant quest for marine resources of the Japanese. We’ve always known how to play with seasons, with the richness of soils, the ocean, and, perhaps above all that, with the enrichment of our knowledge with the suggestions of others, from rice (brought by the botanical Garcia de Orta from Asia) to beans (from Brazil), from aromatic spices to citrines (brought by Arabic culture). Unpretentious and of enviable subtleness, we’ve created a real treasure, filled with small jewels.

Gastronomy might be the most important pillar in our culture. The one no one managed to take down. Let’s take as an example the Muslim invasions. During the nearly half millennium that they were around here, they didn’t succeed in separating us from our beloved pork, whose consumption is forbidden by the Koran, because it is an impure animal, nor from wine, forbidden by Mohamed. It was stronger than us. Therefore, beyond the aforementioned humility, we are left with the notion that what we eat, or what we decide to eat, or what we’d never let anyone stand in our way preventing us from eating, is also a reflection of the amazing courage that has always been a part of the Portuguese DNA throughout time. But let’s take that second “item” then, that characterizes us more unquestionably according to the “southern European” standard, if not the Mediterranean, the wine. An inseparable element of our culture since the dawn of time, the mirror of what we actually are. There is no record to attest to us being, in fact, great “bacchantes”. Our celebrations are, in fact, and making use of that very roman phrase in vino veritas, the mirror of our soul. More decent and orderly, we forget, however, frugality. Although if you give us an accordion in the North, or some voices in the South, with a lot of wine, you’ve got yourself a party. Under the vines, that grow fruitful and to cover all façade of the house, the so-called “latada”. Though way beyond festive days, when inebriate states are inevitable, wine is the mirror of Portugal and, more than that, of every single one of its regions. Plus, it can give us one of the most important lessons when it comes to economics in today’s day and age, as to how locals eat. If you think you’ll cause a great impression on that dinner with friends because you brought a French top wine, forget it. Unless you also bring them some camembert on the side. Centuries and centuries of product creation and evolution of recipes will come to fruition through their marriage with wine. If you don’t believe me, try it, from now on, join an Azeitão cheese with a white Moscatel grape or a Castelão red. To eat piglet from the Bairrada with a Baga single grape variety. Or to bind some migas and entrecôte with a blend of Trincadeira and Aragonês. Wine, our reflection, is the reflection of what we eat, as are we, that is what we eat too, Portuguese, of course.

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.
Full credits and spread on the print issue.