When in Brazil…
It was my fault really, a fact underlined by my husband glaring at me from across the table. Settling quite nicely into a lazy-American role, I had told Lu, our maid/cook/part-time nanny, in my bad Portuguese, “make what you like for dinner.” (The part-time nanny part has emerged recently since we decided perhaps Lu shouldn’t cook every night.) Now whether she translated this into “make what you like to eat,” or “make what you like to cook,” I don’t know. But the evening’s culinary catastrophe was exacerbated by an unfortunately dry bottle of chilled vinho tinto, blindly selected from the wine room at the local grocery store. It was this night that I truly understood how spoiled we had been in New York City. It would only have been during an extreme situation, like a month-long, tri-state-wide power outage, or God-forbid, another terrorist attack, that such a meal could have been even a remote possibility for consumption.
Note: My two-year-old daughter Sophia, who is on a self-imposed super-model diet that involves chewing her food but not swallowing it and requesting ice as a snack, apparently gobbled it all up happily.
Suspecting this was some kind of cosmic payback for spending way too much of our income on New York restaurants and Whole Foods, I tried to make the best of the situation. I covered the chunks of hotdogs in Parmesan cheese from a bag, and poured some Diet Coke into the wine (a trick taught to me by a good friend in graduate school when our regressive situation meant that we were drinking only the discount wines.)
Food has been one of the challenges in our new world.
It’s not that I was brought up on a fine-dining diet. Sure, my mother would try and introduce new and interesting culinary items on the menu. But like most other Midwestern kids, I was happiest with a pile of fish sticks, accompanied by a mayonnaise-ketchup sauce, or a large glob of macaroni and cheese on my plate. Over the years, however, a person develops their own food… issues, for lack of a better word, and becomes an equation of tastes and standards. My evolutionary experience has included being a vegetarian, a pescatarian, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, a vegan, a raw food vegan, and an organic food junkie.
For example, my daughter has had barely a swallow of non-organic milk during her two-and-a-half years before we arrived in Brazil. And the source of her meats practically had to be raised by organic-farming, Tibetan Monks before it was allowed to pass her lips. Here, it’s been rather difficult to navigate the options. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up. I’ve tried to enlist friends and relatives in Sao Paulo for help, but I get two discouraging responses. The first is a hopeful “Maybe they don’t use hormones here in Brazil.” The other is sad, hopeless shake of the head, as if they’d finally just come to terms with their children being sent to the coal-mines to work.
I was excited to find out there are fresh food markets every day of the week. In fact, five of the Brazilian Portuguese days-of-the-week refer to the markets. (Monday is Segunda-feire, which means second market. Tuesday is Terça-feira, which means third market, etc.) However, I am rather accustomed to informative signs hanging from the awnings of the stalls in these types of markets. Signs that read things like “Free-range, Antibiotic-free Turkey” or “Certified Organic Produce” or “Pure Organic Dry Beans and Grains.” Nope. You go on pure faith that the markets offer something better than the grocery stores.
In the U.S., we are very accustomed to being marketed to. Our newspapers are spotted with food production horror stories and terrifying statistics. So we tend to default to the laws of the defensive consumer. If it doesn’t say “organic” or “healthy,” with an official stamp, we can only assume it’s bad for us.
But in reality, the Brazilians probably have it right. I have yet to see an overweight child here. It’s rare to be offered a meal, whether in a restaurant or in someone’s home, that’s not incredibly balanced. Each includes a leafy green, a bean or lentil, protein, and most often rice. As mentioned in What it means to be Brazilian, dessert is, more often than not, a fruit. They may not have the need to advertise the natural products, if it just assumed.
I’ve even put the nutrition of my daughter into the hands of the Brazilians by electing to have her eat lunch at school. Today, she ate her entire meal. (Everything, really. Chicken, bean, rice… the works. I asked them three times, just to be sure I understood, and made them show me her plate.)
And to be fair to Lu, she’s made some really incredible meals. There’s a 60% chance that when we sit down to dinner, it will be something great, which I’m happy with considering how little I invested in the project. Although I do believe it’s spiral macaroni with hotdog-tomato sauce again tonight…