The way to the heart is through the stomach is one of those ultimate premises that made Portuguese women of yesteryear want to learn to dominate the gastronomic arts from an early age. It was as certain as the trousseau. Because otherwise, they probably wouldn’t find a husband. Or they would get one that isn’t that demanding when it comes to food. Which would bother the hell out of parents that would like to see their daughter married well. Because “those who aren’t good at eating aren’t good for working”. Love? “That comes later, because this isn’t not one of those movies you like to watch on revival houses”, they’d say.
Let’s keep it straight. No detours, no flowers, no decorations. Without trying to cover up what’s right there, out in the open. Without fantasies on what’s more than obvious. When, whilst out on an inconsequent stroll, we come across that person that was, once before, our other half, the one that crushed us, that made us question everything and everyone, apart from the wobbly legs, slight dizziness and sudden overwhelming heat, in what other part of us do we feel this agitation? When we look down, moved, to the crib where our newborn baby is sleeping, that grand love and, simultaneously, deep fear of the unknown that is the entirety of their future (and ours), where do we feel an actual not? When we revisit, at once, all the memories of a loved one that just passed away, where does that decisive hiccup, prior to the compulsive crying that carries all the sorrow in the world, come from? Go figure how the poetic concept of the heart as a love barometer came to place. Is it because it is rooted in millenniums of literary tradition? Are we violating the Prose Conduct Manual if we call it like we see it? Even if we know it already, because we’ve felt it, and not just once? Yes, it is in the stomach where all manifestations that could only belong to love actually take place. Other organs get worked up with lust, the epidermis scintillates with the draws of longing, lungs gasp with desire’s short of breath. But is it love? It might be. But we’ll only know when boredom strikes. When the absences translate into a kind of melancholy that feeds on nothing. When the pain of loss comes along with an immense apathy towards the most basic and primordial pleasures. Love gives us courage, willpower, drive, all synonyms with stomach, when not bound by such specific contexts. And it all leaves us hungry, not for Toutatis but for Pantagruel. To keep it real, there are way more complicated expressions in the English language than “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” This one’s rather obvious. But also, assertive. And we’re not just talking of men, because that sexist thing doesn’t work either way.
Our first love is our mother. Psychologists around the world, come together in unison and explain to us, please, once and for all, what the hell is the Oedipus Complex, that theater play character, written by Sophocles in the year 427 b.C., named Oedipus King, that Aristotle considered the perfect example of a Greek tragedy. Or we can uncover the veil a little further. Very succinctly, because the Greek classics weren’t too keen on synthesis, Oedipus, the Theban, was left to die as a newborn, with both feet tied, on the Cyberian Mount, between Thebes and Corinth. A Corinthian pastor saves him and takes him to his town, where he’s adopted by Polybus, the king in that area. Following his adolescence, Oedipus consults the oracle at Delphi about his origins, but he’s only informed of the prophecy that weighs over his shoulders: he shall kill his father and marry his mother. It’s safe to say this all sounds a little problematic since he didn’t really know where he came from, and even more so if prophecies were something he believe in. And it’s annoying, given that the kid only needed some information and left with an enigmatic answer, because everyone knows how Portugal is always behind its time and it all sounded awfully familiar to when we go the get our finances sorted and they tell us: “Well, you know how this goes, with August coming in… maybe come back in September.” When in doubt, Oedipus laced up his karbatinai (Greek typical sandals) and got the hell out of there. During his journey, he kills an old man (and the entire entourage that followed, from where only one man got out alive) and, at the doors of Thebes, encounters the Sphinx, who presents him with a riddle. If he were to give the wrong answer, he’d die. Oedipus got it right. As a reward, he receives the title of king, and Jocasta’s hand in marriage, a queen that recently became a widow because someone had murdered Laius, her husband. You get where this is going, right? Right! Everything ends up in the good and tetric way of Greek tragedies, with Oedipus balling his eyes out and Jocasta killing herself. All that’s left to explain is how Freud, the Austrian neurologist, was a regular within the cultural circles of Paris and Vienna, where modern productions of the Sophocles’ play were a huge hit in the decade of 1880/90. Haunted by what he saw, as any other susceptible person would be, he writes his renowned piece The Interpretation of Dreams, where he declares: “His faith [Oedipus’] moves us solely because it could have been our own – because the oracle cursed us all before we were even born, as it did him. It’s our fate, maybe, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and murderer’s impulse towards our father. Our dreams convince us that this is true.”
What the Father of Psychoanalysis means is that when kids reach what we designate as the phallic stage of psychosexual development (from ages of three to six years old), that’s also when the libido and ego are created, with unconscious manifestations of incest fantasies with the opposite sex progenitor. As well as manifestations of animosity with the progenitor of the same sex. Which is followed by a huge and unbearable feeling of guilt. The only catch in this theory is that Freud considered it universal, meaning, he didn’t account for the hypothesis of an exception to the norm. It goes without saying that this theory, although famous and continuously repeated, is not scientifically accepted due to lack of evidence. Allow me to move onto a more modern approach. A little bit more archaic too. Complicated? Not really. Are you curious? Should I first warn you that it might seem weird? Boobs. Did you see that? The word alone has already provoked some sort of eyebrow raise. But they’re just what they are. Boobs. I’ll take this queue to tell you that I, living testimony (for now) of the generation that was a teenager at the end of 80s and beginning of the 90s, can guarantee you that today’s Portuguese society (and other occidental ones) is way more of a prude than it was back when António Variações was challenging mentalities. When parents, educated under Salazar’s iron fist, saw their kids come home with earrings, long hair, tattoos, belly, and nipple piercings, made when under the influence or while on music festivals that weren’t sponsored by telecommunications companies, at most there would be a phone cabin to call home and say “I’m ok”. When half the opening credits of Brazilian soap operas that put an entire country to a halt, during TV’s noble schedule, had nudity. It’s not really about the adagio “We were happy and we didn’t even know it”. Because we knew it perfectly. We were aware that we were the first ones to enjoy a fuller sense of freedom. And we took it all in with greediness. With an urgency typical of those who fear that one day, it’ll end. We challenged gentle customs with transgressions that became part of our quotidian. Do you want a mere example of how today we’re living in much more outdated times? I knew what nearly half my high school class’s boobs looked like. Because the beach was an urgency and going topless was mandatory. Nowadays, social media block nipples. The exposure to our friends’ breasts turned us into perves, depraved beings? No. Why? Because it’s only boobs. What kind of moral damages did our civilization incurred in that lead it to think male nipples are acceptable and female nipples are pornographic? Unresolved men, like Mark Zuckerberg. Poorly weaned. People that, apparently, also perceive tin pans as porn because that’s where their grandmother fried potatoes when they were little. Boobs are our first mugs. And yet, now more than ever, some people sexualize a mother breastfeeding their child on public transport. But then they don’t want Austrian neurologists to come along with crazy ideas! Our mother is the first Woman of Our Life. And she also conquers us through our stomachs. With major difficulties. The pain, mostly. Painful nodules (blocked vases), red, swollen breasts, blisters on their nipples, and then, the exhaustion. While we’re babies, we’re like that one very demanding, annoying client at a restaurant, and our mother is the entire staff that fusses around to please us, from the living room to the kitchen. Of course, that, afterward, our passion amplifies when she holds us, skin to skin, which releases oxytocin, the “love hormone”, when we maintain visual contact, when we hear her voice, and even when we sense her smell. But the first factor that makes us eternally in love with our mother (to the point of looking for an identical woman to spend the rest of our lives with) is that umbilical cord that nurtures us and, once out in this world, that breast milk that attends to our every energetic, nutritious and hydric needs. When we’re newborns, we don’t pay that much attention to seasoning, a little protein will suffice, along with some lipids, fats, vitamins, and minerals. But life goes on and, don’t be fooled… You may go to the best restaurant in town. But momma’s food tastes like no other.
Alfredo Saramago. If you don’t know him, you should. He’s the highest regarded authority in Portuguese gastronomy, a label he refused, but that became inevitable since his life was dedicated to one love, written as devotedly as the neorealists would in the XX century. For all purposes, he was a historian and an anthropologist. But he applied his academic education to what he loved the most, ending up making various agreements, from the depths of Alentejo, which he worshipped, on the most beautiful and poetic branch of Portuguese culture: his gastronomy. He died in 2008 without many RIPs on social media (which is of unforgivable ingratitude or just proof that those requiems are group behaviors that don’t really obey to any logic of adoration to those who actually deserve it) but left a legacy that will be hardly matched by any other. All that’s left is to appreciate all he’s left us. Doçaria dos Conventos de Portugal, Cozinha de Lisboa e Seu Termo, Cozinha da Beira Interior, Cozinha Algarvia e Cozinha Transmontana, only to name a few of the masterpieces we inherited, which are much more than mere culinary books such as O Livro de Pantagruel, even though he remained incredibly faithful to them, either by making use of written records and of as oral testimonies. Each plate is rooted in a story that resonates to this day. That is what counts, always. But in Cozinha Para Homens – A Honesta Volúpia, the mastery of Saramago takes up epic proportions. Firstly, because in 1992 (Colares Editor), with no fear of “taking on” an entire editorial universe overflowing with “housewives” cookbooks, he burst out that a kitchen is a place designed for men by men. It inverted in such a way the roles imposed by Salazar’s dictatorship (women have to be dedicated wives, devoted mothers, pristine housemaids, and extraordinary cooks), that he ended up dividing the book into three important segments, explaining how that lead him to Casanova’s quotation, “I haven’t turned into a hermit yet because I hate eating alone”: A Friend’s Kitchen, a Lover’s Kitchen, a Husband’s Kitchen. Here we have the new Portuguese Man, engendered by Alfredo Saramago in the 90s, a progressist that confectioned the best recipes that would go with the best wines while hosting a friendly dinner, the masculine and sexy “tough” kitchen lover that cooks wearing nothing but an apron, showing off his plumped and voluminous glutes and, finally, the loving husband that has dinner ready by the time his wife gets home from work (which pays her way more than his), portraying the author’s vanguardism. The recipe compilation is organized in an absolute way, with cocktails opening up the conversation, followed by appetizers, soups, mains (fish, meat, game meat, and vegetarian options), and, of course, desserts. Nonetheless, according to the politeness of this historian-anthropologist-gastronome, an expert at winning us through our stomachs, everything has an explanation that makes us fall in love.
For example, the extremely poor origins of the Alentejana’s Açorda (which we must explain, is not the same as “Alentejana’s Soup” because people from Lisbon will not be the ones to rename just because, for them, açorda is a glop) and the precious detail that is the bread having to be parted by hand and not with a knife, which doesn’t allow for the aromas of the ground (garlic, coriander, olive oil, and salt) penetrate the fibers. Or the Christmas Marrã, a recipe that is described as follows: “Christmas night dinner, for the most of Alentejo, is held after the midnight mass and has for main course pork, which specifically on this night, is called marrã, to commemorate the end of the advent’s fasting. The animal with the most fat would be the one killed because the meat’s flavor of a pig that was fattened with acorns comes from the thick layer of bacon that wraps it. The meat is cut with all the surrounding bacon and with the skin and is cooked this way.” Here you have the context of this recipe that we won’t fully reveal out of editorial confidentiality, although we’ll leave the conclusion in, as a form of texture analysis: “The bacon will fall apart over time, and the skin will start to get overcooked, softening the meat inside, almost as a confit, with a taste that is nothing similar to the one of pork meat that is usually consumed, bred with flowers and hormones, away from the spreads of acorns that give it flavor and taste” and the precious note for those friends of ours, lovers or spouses that fall under the “weirdo” category (those who always leave, on the edge of their plate, a little ensemble of ingredients which are precious to their confection, a profoundly annoying behavior to those who respect a nice full spread): “Don’t be afraid of pork meat that is fat; you’re not obliged to eat the bacon, but the matured meat that lies beneath it has a richer flavor and tenderer consistency.” Out of all cookbook authors or even within the Portuguese gastronomy world, Alfredo Saramago is one that doesn’t leave any room for doubt. Portugal won him over by the stomach. To love him, one must get to know all his attributes, recognize all his flaws, and love them all the same, examine all his idiosyncrasies. And what better reflection for all this than gastronomy? Who here dares to say they love Portugal without knowing that iscas and bifanas are fried in fat? Who here dares to say they fell in love with our rectangle of land without adhering to the coriander, salsa, and peppermint ensemble, that surmounts the bean batch with entrecôte, a pod from the same very legume? Who here is capable of the imprudence that is saying they know our coast without knowing that, north of Aveiro, no one would dare to put coriander in seafood? Let us cast, then, the first stone to those who try to pair a Leitão da Bairrada with any other wine apart from Baga (red) or Bical (white). Let us scream from the top of our lungs that Serpa Cheese is much better than Serra Cheese. But only because we know that thistle, a mandatory ingredient in cheese factories in the south, grants more flavor than the greenest of pastures. Let us assume, then, that love, whatever one it is, by whomever it is and whatever its shape and form, comes from tripe. And let us love with voracity, always!
Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's Love issue, published in December 2020.