This is the first in a series of posts from our new Foodshed Nomad column.
January 29, 2010
It’s difficult to explain, and I’m certainly aware that I’m still in a phase of first impressions rather than any sort of intimate. But in short, I find this city absolutely magnificent. There’s a phrase in Brazilian Portuguese that has no literal translation: saudade. It connotes a sense of longing, a deep yearning and nostalgia for a person or place, and is often used when expressing your love for something or someone while you are still with it or them (perhaps the sentiment Toni Morrison was trying to express when she wrote, “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody before you leave them” in her book Sula). I’ve been here just a week, but it already feels like much longer. Rio’s languorous pace draws you in very quickly, and running around Brooklyn packing up and saying goodbyes already seems months behind me. One of my new friends and I were just discussing the intoxication that comes from being in Rio, the sense that you are living in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a place with no life or time outside its limits. Here we all move as one, and even those of us who move at the quickest pace in our outside lives are forced to give up the hurry here. It is as giving in to love.
The city is as full of sighs of revelry and pleasure as it is with bustle and pain. I find myself at times reminded of other places to which I’ve traveled — the chaos of Durban, the transplanted European elegance of Cape Town, the poverty and remarkable presence of the sprawling South African townships, the startling friendliness of Detroit, the multiculturalism of New York, the cosmopolitan beach neighborhoods and slow pace of Montevideo, the sultry street life and music of San Telmo in Buenos Aires, the heat of Belize, and the bohemian beauty of Montmartre in Paris.
But social inequity rules here—pickpocketing is commonplace and the homeless are too numerous to count. The standard police force works in tandem with the druglords, pocketing bribes to stay quiet and leave the traffickers to their business. And certainly, conflicts do arise. The sound of gunshots from the hills is common, as is the passing of police helicopters overhead. But unlike my experience in South Africa, violence isn’t random here. The wars are between the traffickers and those who engage with them—customers, suppliers, police, corrupt businessfolk. And as frightening and real as it is, life goes on, peacefully for the most part. The media has sensationalized Rio (as it has sensationalized so many places) to a point of ridiculous paranoia. One musn’t walk through the streets here with fear. The best protection, in fact, is to adopt the pace of the Cariocas—moving at a honeyed speed, filled with sweetness, passion, joy, and no sense of urgency at all; keeping your wits about you is certainly necessary, but carrying your terror on your sleeve only seems to make you more of a target of petty crime.
The scene is set: this is Rio. As usual when I arrive in a new place, I first set myself to orienting myself by food. By the afternoon of my first day in Rio, I knew I would be well fed. Small shops scattered all about the city vend all the basics, but alongside the streets and in the tangled jungle yards are where the real treasure troves lie. Mounds of fresh produce sold on the sidewalk, trees dripping with jeweled fruit in the yards, beautiful fish, green coconuts served with a straw for their nourishing water and sweet meat, juice stands on every corner, salgados (savory snacks) and sweets in carts everywhere. Bliss.
At first, adjusting to the heat, I wondered whether I would be able to take advantage of this bounty. My inclination was to go on an immediate spree and gorge myself. But in temperatures this high, you have to pace yourself. The Cariocas snack all day long — a mango or some jaca (jackfruit) here, a salgado or two there, juice and coconut water as frequently as possible, acai as an afternoon snack, and light grazing to accompany cold beers or caipirinhas through the long sultry nights of samba and revelry. This is true, as far as I can tell, across socio-economic lines. Almost everyone eats like this. The downtown elite hustle from their air conditioned offices to air conditioned restaurants for large platos executivos (set lunches) during the week while the majority of the city swelters, but for the most part, the Cariocas eat in bits all the day long, savoring the fruits of Brazil’s diverse cultures and climates and replenishing their energy stores to stay standing in the sticky heat.
And so I have quickly learned to do as the locals do. A banana and mango with my morning coffee, a suck of sugar cane in the mid-morning garden sun, a salgado or a cake and juice to carry me through until the sun finally sets and it’s cool enough for a small hot meal. Eating is as much as source of pleasure as samba, love, and the beaches here. And to appreciate it fully, this busy-bee New Yorker is getting a lesson in slowing down.