Marshmallows, sweet cotton candy, rhubarb, guava pulp, pink oyster mushrooms, it’s all very nice when you look at it from a photographic perspective rather than a taste one. Because gastronomic poetry comes from that peeking sausage in the middle of the cabbage that surrounds it, a type of comfort food that could only come to mind to a people as creative as we are.
Sculpture by Olivia Bonilla, available through Miller Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina.
It's just like in many books I’ve read. No matter how bleak the plot is, there are always passages that sweeten it up. In other words, despite how dark the world can get, there are always ways to see it through pink shades. I recall, for example, Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley that I forced myself to read in the original English language to try to understand more deeply (yes, that “deeply” was an intended pun) what the hell had captivated Steven Spielberg so much to the point he directed a movie that led me to prefer the pool for, at least, two summers, to the beach. Indeed, the director was hired by two producers that fell in love with the book. Which tackles, in extensive paragraphs, themes that the movie doesn’t allow us to reach: the interior fight Ellen Brody was facing, the respected wife of Martin Brody, Amity’s police chief, when faced with the impetus of consummating old desires with Hooper, the biologist that comes to help in the capture of the great white shark, and that had been her high school friend; the common frustration of Balzacian women when they find themselves facing the possibility of an alternative to their worn-out relationships by time and conformity; the problematic of local power in summer vacation spots, for whom the economic gains that come from tourism are many times more important than the well-being of local communities (a theme that I myself, as a southern coaster, sympathize with). This comes to explain that, from one of the darkest pages of Portuguese contemporary history, Salazar’s Dictatorship, there aren’t that many things we miss. But some did. And, as a mere side note, let it be said that this is one of the major issues we faced today: people who mix up a time where no one had to worry about anything (like walking barefoot, because there was no money for shoes), because they were kids and the world was, as expected, pinker, meaning that people often confuse pure nostalgia with politics and/ or economics. One of them is, for those more attentive to the details of design, the furniture that filled up the vast majority of public repartition spaces. It all came from the same factory in Sacavém, the Olaio. They were incredibly beautiful pieces with such indisputable quality that today, on the vintage market, their prices are sky-high. Out of luck (or online insistence), I found a piece of that furniture in relatively good condition and so cheap that there was no question its owner had no idea what they had in his possession. It was love at first sight and, just like any man in love, I went to pick it up on that same day, a Friday evening, in a hidden corner of Sintra’s Mountain. On Saturday morning I left to do some work in Leixões, where I was the annoying guy showing everyone the incredible piece of furniture I had secured, cedarwood, no scratches, not really holding back on my enthusiasm that I was now the happy owner of an Olaio sideboard. When I got home Sunday evening, completely worn-out, I walked into the room and froze still. I opened my eyes wide. I think my jaw dropped too. Before that vision, I could hardly mumble out the obvious question: “Why is my sideboard pink?” Only to hear, in a mitigated, but incredibly outraged tone: “It’s not pink. It’s nude.”
A friend of mine (mine – because I reserve the right to incur in as many pleonasms as I please) used to say she preferred guys with darker features. Nothing groundbreaking there. The alleged reason why is what is kind of funny: “With white guys and blondies, sometimes you take their pants off and all you find is a marshmallow. And I don’t like marshmallows.” I don’t either, I assume. But a guy like me who, in a dinner with friends, when everyone moves on to dessert, opts for another samosa, a mustard croquette, or even a little soup to “top it all off”, is no example. I am not, in any way shape or form, crazy for sweets. I recognize the worth of a Pastel de Tentúgal, the relevancy of a Dom Rodrigo, the virtue of a slice of Pão de Rala and the sensorial amplitude that comes from a bite of Abade de Priscos. To sum up, I am a staunch Defensor of Portuguese Confectionary and the Conventual kind in particular. Hence why I go to such lengths for a Leitão à Bairrada, a Chickpea Stew in Moreanes (Restaurant O Alentejo) or an Açorda of Partridge in Entradas (Restaurant A Cavalariça), there goes the difference that one commonly imagines between a Nordic marshmallow and a Senegalese staff, assuming the exaggeration. When it comes to the sacrosanct packaged confectionary, which goes beyond candy bars and usually comes in multicolored bags, I don’t go anywhere near it. There is a texture there that would only be able to appeal to humankind if we were a species of bird that regurgitates its food before giving it to its babies or a ruminant that reserves its food in a paunch, moves it to the reticulum where it will be compressed and only then will return to the mouth to be chewed before heading to the omasum and later to the abomasum. Gummy bears, for example, are basically made out of little legs. Pig’s, cow’s, lamb’s, whatever is available. It’s pure jelly, basically. Don’t count me in as a supplier for raw materials. I will eat chispalhadas, pezinhos de coentrada and cow’s hand with chickpeas until there are no extremities left. And then, of course, there’s that marshmallow situation… Created around 2.000 a.C. in Ancient Egypt, depending only on two ingredients, honey and white mallow sap (Althaea officinalis, that same one Portuguese people use, since immemorial times, infused, for the treatment of pinkeye and hemorrhoids, and that in English has the name of marshmallow), was only presented to the Occident by the work of French confectionery makers, that replaced the sap by jelly, in the XIX century. Its artisanal production survived that day in 1948 when Alex Doumak decided to stick to the extrusion, meaning, a process that consists of the cooking of the ingredients at 115 degrees Celsius and pushing the dough through tubes where then air is injected onto it. The chosen coloration was pink, and purists won’t allow for another. When looking at the thing from a more sociological manner, it is generally said that pink is the color of millennials. And, if there were any lingering doubts, one should note the expressions of those young adults who, during Portugal’s August fairs, run to the cotton candy cart like pigeons to the Figueira Square. Or the fascination with rhubarb ever since Master Chef Australia broke audience records. Or the gins that are served in huge balloon glasses with bothersome pink-pepper grains floating around (which is not even a Piper pepper, like any other, but the fruit of a mastic – Schinus molle). Or the rise (and undeniable increase in quality) of rosé wine in the last few years. Or the price attributed to Himalayan salt, obtained from slavery for the gaiety of the Occident.
Here we’re gourmands. Hence why we’ll focus on only two truthfully fundamental pillars of every Portuguese stomach, that are naturally pink toned. One of them lives in the sea and the other wherever. Let us start with the first. Which also happens to be one of the smartest animals on this planet. It is mostly understood by those who dive and observe it, in an exercise of unsurmountable mutual curiosity. It is understood by those who catch it for their own survival (and is it expensive, the creature). And it is known by those who are faithful followers of animal kingdom documentaries. And they have for sure stumbled upon laboratory movie clips in which it was concluded that the octopus is capable of solving problems, even mathematical ones. Or have even laid eyes (and the rest of their senses) on the documentary nominated for an Emmy, My Octopus Teacher, available on Netflix, that absolute game-changer, not quite in the same way as Cowspiracy (which has already converted thousands of inveterate meat-eaters into the most convict and feisty vegans), but in another, much deeper and fulfilling way. The octopus is indeed a fascinating animal. So much so, that it is undoubtedly part of human imagination, going from legends to Japanese erotic illustrations (yes, precisely how you’re picturing it) to the creation of the most fantastic extraterrestrial creatures in cinema. And all of this goes as far as their camouflage skills also go (the exact term would be cryptic coloration), both in coloration as in shape and texture that, in themselves, would be enough to write a book. Which exists already, by the way, and it is called The Soul of an Octopus. And it explores, resorting to an immersive journalistic speech, the complex emotional and physical world of the cephalopod, through the observation of its author, which defies the conceptions of more retrograde scientists, concluding that this is a complex, intelligent and even spiritual creature. For us, Portuguese people, there’s only one problem: octopuses are some of the tastiest things the sea has given us. And we handle it like no one else does. If the Greek and the Italians beat it against the walls to soften its tissues and allow for it to be less hard to eat, we give it around ten minutes in the pressure cooker (or 20, in a normal pot), with one onion, bay leaves and a clove of India. If the Gallegos chop it in the thinnest slices, we lay it in olive oil and call it “à lagareiro”, a mandatory option in any restaurant as the day’s special. If the Japanese put a chunk of rice underneath it and call it sushi, on the contrary, we believe that that rice (agulha) should stay loose, with a superb pink coloration and a sprinkle of coriander after the oven has been turned off. Then there is, of course, the wisdom of Rio Formosa’s citizens, who cook it in the most divine way there is: Polvo Abafado is cooked in a ceramic pot that is kept closed and without a drop of water, cooking in its own humidity that is generated in the process. In the end, Portuguese people worship this cephalopod in such a way that, in many regions, it is elevated to one of the dishes of Christmas Eve. But there is yet another pink food we worship even more…
Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you the good old reco. There is nothing more pinky, blonde hairs and eyelashes included, than a pig. Yes, I know. There are also fewer things that are more adorable and cuter than a little piglet. Or an adult pig, for that matter. They are also gifted with unusual intelligence, which is probably not the best thing to refer to since we’ll proceed to address them merely as food. Maybe that is why we still insist on a couple of cultural references. Being that the pig is one of the most gifted animals on this planet for the consumption of meat (besides being able to be entirely consumed, skin and extremities included, a female pig can give birth up to a dozen piglets), which was, since immemorial times, an important way of sustenance, there were people who even revered the animal. In the Beiras (Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, for example), granitic sculptures of pigs with little holes on their back, where, according to archeologists and historians, candles would be put during ceremonies that honored the animal and its nutrition services. When the Romans finally conquered the last resolute piece of the Iberic Peninsula, made up of the irreducible tribes of Viriato, the deed was celebrated with the mintage of a coin where two vestals purged, with torches, two wild pigs out of a cave. Caesar’s subjects (and other emperors) compared Lusitanos to the strength, drive and robust physique of that which is a true force of nature (the wild pig is the only animal in the world that if it breaks a bone, it sits tight waiting for its muscles to put it back in place). The sacred place for Lusitanos can still be visited today, close to the Alandroal. It’s reduced to a small (but tall) rock on top of which there was, one day, a statue of Endovélico, represented as a pig, whom they worshiped. Many centuries later, pigs were also the ones that allowed us to recover our territory that had been conquered by the Mouros. All it took was to install a siege and hang from the only drinking water supply source (normally a well), one or two hams (the pig is an impure animal for the Muslim culture and to touch its skin is equivalent to what Catholics would consider as a sin) for rendition to happen (unless many lettuces were laying around for them to eat, as so happened in the Lisbon siege). Given that, and before moving on to the ever-pink ham, it is important to note that, for the sake of a more peaceful conscience at the time of chewing, the pig is the most dignified animal of all after it is dead, because nothing goes to waste. And let it be known that this doesn’t happen on a global scale. Portuguese people included it all in their gastronomy, just as easily a noble loin or a generous paw with bone roasted in the oven, as they do with its snout with beans, a full head in the smokehouse or a piece of its grilled skin (coirato) at the stands during a football match. But I remember vividly of an episode of a famous program on the Travel Channel where some travelers (that came from the land of burgers and where the only way to eat fish is when it is breaded into a fillet) who, in some episodes, even went as far as to eat roasted marmot in a bag made of its own skin (hair included) and insides of other mammals without any sanitation whatsoever, were for the first time very close to vomiting while eating… salad of pig’s ear served at a Spanish restaurant! Even if I ever considered the hypothesis (quite possible, I’ll say) that such thing wouldn’t have happened had they tried a pig’s ear salad at a Portuguese restaurant, there are things that, although don’t really make me purple with outrage, they do flush my cheeks with a shade of pink one or two tones above normal.
Translated from the original on the "Pink Issue", from may 2021.
Full credits and story on the print version.