15. 7. 2021

English Version | It's at the table, dumbass!

by Nuno Miguel Dias


When my mother cooked chicken, she demanded to have the head so she could feast on the crest. And with the little legs to “suck” on them (her words). And the “tail bone”. It all seemed idiotic to me. Today, since I am old enough to have some status, that “bone” is reserved for me. After all, it does make sense. Tasting-wise. In the kitchen, not everything that seems silly is silly. And I bet you’re already guessing where all this is going. 

© Irving Penn

“Alfredo, anda comer o comer” (something along the lines of “Alfredo, come to the table) is one of those phrases that irritates any city boy. Too worried about the correct employment of the mother tongue, they feel a tiny stroke every time the substantive “food” is substituted by the verb already applied before. From the top of his baby-blue shirt tucked inside his khaki pants, it doesn’t go through their minds that, in Portuguese culture, food is never on its own. It requires the nearly religious act that is eating it. From an ethnological perspective, snack bars were greatly responsible for the crumbling down of the act of eating, well, food. We quickly grab a lunch bite standing up, at the counter and in a rush, it’s all about taking it back to atrocious banalities which, until then, were done with the utmost ceremony. At a table where people would only take the first bite once everyone was already seated. Bread to the center, the wine at the father’s side, mouth shut, elbows down. One needed to ask permission “Can I please leave the table?” to do so, but only after the authorization, if it even existed. Because it was always possible that we would hear something like: “We still haven’t finished eating”. Even during the dark ages of Salazar and the nearly enslaved work dynamics, the time to eat at the table was sacred. In the vast cornfields, even before the jorna (day’s work), the coca (a clay recipient brought from home carrying lunch). Those who were “à coca” had the mission to light up the fire that would warm up a bunch of the worker’s cocas so that, at lunch time, they could all sit with their knife and piece of coconut having a great time. We have here then, that the Portuguese man is the only one to consume its own action. If one of the pillars of Mediterranean, that Immaterial Patrimony of Humanity, is slow food, eaten in a very paused way, seating at the table with one’s family, we have refined it and elevated it to a level only we could ever understand. We not only eat food, but everything that is involved in its digestion. Because to taste is for chickens. 

There’s no point in trying to explain this to a foreign. They won’t get it. It’s like trying to explain, as a supreme less is more motto, our very own Cooked Fish with Everything. Yes, imagine the plate, the animal product or even any alimentary genre, as long as it is the most Hediondo. This will always be acceptable in more than one culture. However, the act of boiling water with salt, putting fish and potatoes in it and then eat them, I assure you, is something whose description is enough to make any citizen in the world (that isn’t Portuguese) want to vomit their insides out. Then they will clean the corners of their mouth with the back of their hand and say: “That’s stupid”. There’s no point in resorting to the defense: “Yes, but then we drizzle it with homemade olive oil and dip bread in it, with that little piece of boiled egg that is left behind forgotten.” For them, it will always remain stupid. Which for us is simply strange. Being judged by a gastronomical choice by a culture that is unfamiliar with it. But then we also rush to criticize the feasts adored by antipodes or even neighbor countries depending on what our gastronomic canons are. Let’s see. Since we adore the exotic sushi, let’s take Japan as an example. In the supermarkets of Tokyo, one can find for sale in cuvettes, tuna eyes. Apparently, they’re a very expensive delicacy. As it is the case for shiokara, pieces of meat from different sea animals served in a brown jelly-like paste of their own insides, all raw. Wasp cookies are also a huge success, because chocolate chips are left for others. Something that requires a bit of courage as well is fugu, the balloon fish that can be deadly if not well prepared by the sushi master. It’s kind of a Russian roulette that kills 22 to 40 people annually, in Tokyo alone. Idiotic, right? Way closer than that, in Iceland, the putrefied meat of Hákarl (Greenland’s shark), to which Anthony Bourdain refer to as the “worst and most disgusting thing I have ever tasted”, is the national dish. Just like around here we don’t miss an opportunity to eat tuna, the national canned food of choice in Swede is surstroming, herring from the Baltic, fermented and conserved in enough salt that prevents it from going bad. Its sent is so strong that it can only be eaten outside. But the prize for the most idiotic food of all goes to the North American Spam. Pig’s paw, ham, and potato fecula, they say. But if you give it to a dog, he will find no difference to the Pedigree can of food he ate the night before. Now the ultimate one… Khash is a soup made of cow hooves that is highly consumed in Armenia and some parts of Turkey. No, it’s not like our Cow’s hand with Chickpeas. That is a daily dish in a second-rate restaurant or the Sunday menu at the in-laws. But with a certain attached preparation, were it not Portuguese after all. The Khash, on the contrary, is quite literally, the water where cow hooves have been boiling for eight hours. It starts being prepared in the evening (meaning, the hooves start being boiled in water), with hourly check-ins (we’re not talking about seasoning, but to verify is the water has evaporated already and if so, adding more), so it can be eaten at breakfast. On very special days. Because it’s the Day of the Khash, a true Armenian event. Which starts bright and early, with the ingestion of such a feast in a ritualistic way that involves three toasts: one for the day that will follow, one for the cook and the last one for the guest. Then you drink, sing and dance until sunset. Two important details… tTe first is that, since there is no seasoning in the confection of this dish, usually each of the involved will add at least six garlic cloves to the mix. The other is that only vodka is acceptable as a drink to accompany this delight. Meaning, what some would call a “dumb dish”, I would define as a Great Hungover Remedy. Not that I know what’s better under those circumstances. A friend of mine told me about it. 

While this text is being written, Cristiano Ronaldo has retrieved from the filming plan of a press conference two bottles of the most drank soda beverage in the world and the responsible for so many cases of infantile obesity and diabetes. Following that, he pulled a bottle of the most precious liquid on earth and proclaimed something more than his usual monosyllabic responses: “Água!” (meaning, Water!). Social media, that world that belongs to those with nothing else in the world, were agitated. “Coca-Cola lost four million euros on the stock market.” Lies. But the truth is, for the Coca-Cola Company it would be the same as losing a penny in your purse when you go grocery shopping. Despite all the drama it caused, which is a non-subject, the world was taught a lesson. “Don’t drink this poison and hydrate in a dignified way.” It’s food for thought, this thing of man being the most intelligent animal on earth and yet, contrary to a bird that can spot poisonous insects or a carnivore that knows that, not being omnivorous, it’s better not to eat that fruit that will disarrange their bowl movement, they feed of things they know are harmful. Man, and mostly the Portuguese, doesn’t fill up the gas tank at a supermarket gas station because “it’s not good for the motor”. But then after leaving the station, he goes to McDonald’s and asks for a Big Mac to fill up his stomach. It’s a fascinating subject when it comes to making us, since we’re equipped with this thing called free will, mere jackasses. Have you ever tried setting fire to a wavy potato chip? It burns better than some bagasse to roast chorizo on the barbeque. Pure fuel. Have you ever tried to figure out what a canned sausage is made of? Or a piece of gum? It wouldn’t take much to realize that they harm more than they do good, if they even do any good at all. When some daddy-os say sugar is off limits to their offspring, they are doing a public service. In big quantities, sugar affects the brain in such a way that it fogs our memory and ability to learn (yes, I know, you just remembered those videos where someone asks a North American where are France in general and the city of Paris in particular). Too much sugar on the brain restricts the utilization of insulin, used by braincells to block sugar, and help in the “production” of feelings and emotions. Cerebral activity becomes, then, deficient. Animal fat has the same effect. Recent studies have proved that the elevated consumption of butter and red meat can decrease brain function levels and affect our memory. On the contrary, those who consume polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil and avocado, obtain much more hopeful results. However, dear paleo friends, don’t start clapping just yet. A diet that is lacking in carbs can provoke, besides that lack of energy and pathogenic tiredness you feel, a decrease in cognitive capabilities, such as dyslexia and the fact that your phone is always dropping out of your hand. When it comes to fast food, we all know the addictive effects. Meaning, the message that gets sent to our brain is: “I need this. Again. Yesterday was not enough”. What most people don’t think about (or they do, but then again, we’re a very irrational animal) is that going “cold turkey” will lead to depression and anxiety. The “German friend”, Herr Alzheimer, is also lurking if consumption is continuous. 

If there is something that leaves me on the verge of a nervous attack is when someone says they didn’t like a certain movie because it was “too slow”.  But it is always better than when someone says, “I don’t really watch Portuguese cinema”. But what does this have to do with the subject, you might be asking around now. In the movie Traffic (1998), by João Botelho, there are many ups and downs, but for this topic we underline the scene where there is a big grill-out with sardines by the pool at the house of Comtesse Furgel (Rosa Lobato de Faria), for which some of the highest ranks of the pathetic elite had been invited, and by chance, Madamme Amélia (Maria Emília Correia), a middle-class Portuguese lady, who is left appalled in the face of so much fuss. After some ordinary conversation, the Comtesse says: “Come, come, the servants are ready to serve you” and they both make their way to a table where they put on white gloves. Then they both take their silver trays, walk by the band who is interpreting an erudite lyrical piece with post-modernist notes and take a seat, eating sardines with their hands. They start giggling out of atypical enthusiasm and Madamme Amélia let out: “Sardines have a soft consistency and a preciously refined taste. I’m euphoric.” More laughter. The Comtesse explains: “It’s the recipe of Comendador Máximo. He thinks sardines have excessive amounts of B12… Or B21? Well, no matter the difference… He read a full article about that in an American magazine. That rare component is responsible for the unhappiness of many Portuguese folk. By our immense sadness. Our melancholy. We all know that Portuguese people eat too many sardines. Then, and here is where the genius discovery of the Comendador lays, that melancholic tendency of sardines might be cut by a magnificent condiment, a white powder, secret, that makes them truly exciting, that takes us to the clouds, to paradise.” Much more laughter after, Madamme Amélia exclaims: “I could wash all these plates now.” That was genius. But the pièce de résistance, happened when someone dropped a huge tray with sardines and the Comtesse screams: “Oh the fish…” A Portuguese person referring to sardines as “the fish” is deliciously idiotic and encapsulates the critic to one of the most scarily influent social classes in Portugal. Because, exaggeration aside, these are the same people that spend vacations in Algarve asking for “douradinha escalada” in restuarants. Or a “robalinho grelhado”. Every time that fish from aquaculture is ordered it is done so in a diminutive. In a country where there is no “baked fish”. Only grilled.  If it is grilled fish, then it’s grilled fish. If it’s not the conventional way, meaning, over the coal, then it’s baked fish. Yes, there in the kitchen and outside on the griller, people are making fun with these people that ask to flake off the fish, meaning, asking to ruin it. Believe me they are. Because for them to understand about the subject, it’s only stupid. A ridiculous stance. Though if this applies to you, don’t worry. There are many more ridiculous stances to have. Have you ever tried showing your tropical or Hawaiian pizza (with pineapple, that is) to a Napolitano, who is the actual pizza connoisseur? Or that you need another spoon to roll up the spaghetti to any Italian at all? Or, in Portugal, have you ever asked for sardines with white wine? Have you ever looked at other people’s faces at the seafood place when you try to eat a shrimp with a fork and knife? Or have you ever taken on a stupid action as a restaurant client that is sending a steak back because “I asked for well-done and this is raw” in the middle of “hell time” in the kitchen, while everybody has to stop every other request so that yours is well served? Do you know what will happen to your steak? Anthony Bordain explains it in Confidential Kitchen but it shouldn’t be necessary. It’s quite obvious. Right? Ups!

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's The Nonsense Issue, from July/August 2021.
Full credits and story on the print version.


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