Food For Thought

Annie Plotkin - Brazil


March 7, 2012

Feijão, arroz, cururú, moqueca, vatapá, churrasco, pirão, quiabada, vatapa, acarajé. Bahians do not mess around when it comes to their food, and as a result, I can’t fit into anything I brought with me when I first packed for my year in Brazil.

Every day, I wake up and begin the day the way my host family does: with a cup of coffee and bread. Soon after, I begin to help prepare lunch, which requires meat and preferably two starches. When the food ends up on someone’s plate, it is usually drowned in farinha, which is essentially cornmeal. When I first arrived, I didn’t understand the point. But now, I inexplicably refuse to eat my rice and beans without it, despite the fact that many a body conscious person would gasp in horror at the apparently gratuitous carbohydrates.

Eating is not a joke here. Many refer to a solely vegetarian meal as “folia”, or “shrubbery”. The first time I tried to have a salad for lunch, a piece of steak and some feijoada was quickly dumped on my plate to remedy the situation. “It’s to make you strong” explained my host mom nonchalantly as I looked at my conquered folia.

As always, my host mom was right. I’ve needed the extra strength to keep up with my host family, my colleagues at my apprenticeships, and my neighbors at the citywide parties. Although Bahians have a reputation in Brazil as relaxed and lazy people, I can confidently refute this position. Countless times I have fallen short in strength, endurance, and reflexes, only to name a few qualities that have failed me. Even under the all-encompassing sun that seems to find me even when I hide from it in the scarce shade, the fisherman in the bay haul loads of shrimp from their canoes, people play with their children in the street and do their jobs to the fullest without an extra thought to wipe away the sweat from their foreheads.

While in Brazil, I have an encountered a kind of vitality in the population that I would find remarkable in one person alone. I have been witness to plenty of times within my host family alone where a small improvement could be made, be it in the house or at the family’s snack kiosk that I would naturally overlook because of the labor involved, but they tackle anyway for the sake of improving. I’m learning from them everyday how money isn’t the answer to every problem. In fact, it’s usually what prevents a job done right in the first place.

In the first half of my time in Bahia, I’ve been taught about the value of learning a skill for yourself, which has inevitably come hand in hand with trial and error for a girl who is so unaccustomed with handiwork.  This strength can be partly attributed to their daily nutrition, but it is also a result of a long history of hard work and struggle. As one of the oldest cities in Brazil, Salvador has seen its share of hardship, just like the people of this culturally rich state, to which I am thankful for giving me strength.

Annie Plotkin