"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 24 – 1957 Begins with Stones and Shrimp

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1957 was written on 10 January, in response to a “lovely long letter” from her aunt, “writen [sic] in the middle of the night.” The 68-year old Grace was back nursing somewhere in the US and doing night shifts. Bishop picked up this letter on the way to Rio, “early Monday morning,” so she “read it out loud to Lota en route.” Bishop always asserted that Grace was a good letter-writer and “so taken with it” was Lota “that she said ‘We must take her a nice present when we get to Boston!’” Bishop had mentioned in her last letter of 1956 their plan to go to the US in 1957. As things unfolded, that is just what she and Lota did at the end of March.

The plans were seriously in the air at this time because she and Lota spent some time puzzling over what to take Grace “from here, where the choice is so limited.” Bishop thinks perhaps an “aquamarine.” “Would you like a pin, a ring, or earrings?” She tells Grace that there is “rather nice jewelery [sic] made of all the Brazilian stones put together — aquamarines, beryl, a pink one, etc. — rather pretty.” [Ed. Note: Bishop sent Grace jewelry on a number of occasions. A few of these pieces are in the collection at Acadia University Archives. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland also inherited some of this jewelry, including one of the beautiful brooches Bishop sent to her aunt, one of those with several “Brazilian stones put together.”]
The run to Rio was to “attend to various duties.” But in the end it was “so damned hot” that they “did scarcely anything at all … I simply couldn’t face the dentist. It was too hot to move.” Even a welcome invitation “to dinner and a night club (something I almost never do, but adore when I get the chance)” was declined because “it was too hot to get dressed up and go.”

Instead, the two nights they were in Rio saw them going “way out along one of the beaches to a funny little place that sells fried shrimp — at least it was cool there.” These excursions were so interesting that Bishop wished she “could take you there — I’m sure you’d like it.” What follows is a lively description of the sights and sounds and the food they encountered.

First, there was a spot “along the road where they have set up a lot of little sheds.” Though “primitive” (with just oil lamps or torches), each shed had “a little saint inside, with flowers and a light in front.” The fare at these spots was: “hot corn on the cob, grilled bits of meat stuck on sticks of bamboo, slices of melon or pineapple stuck on bamboo.” And the piéce de resistence: “a strange Brazilian sweet made of corn meal and sugar and herbs, cooked in folded up corn-husks.” To Bishop, these looked and tasted “exactly like hot poultices … but Lota likes them!”
(Pamonha, a paste made from fresh corn and milk,
boiled wrapped in corn husks, turned into dumplings)
Continuing along the road was another “encampment of sheds where they sell fresh oysters and crabs.” The oysters were “delicious — small, just caught.” These shellfish were opened “as fast as you can eat, and you just stand up and suck them out of the shell, squeezing a little lime-juice on top.” To Bishop, the taste was far superior this way, rather than “being iced.” They had gone on this excursion with friends (whom she does not name). “One of the men with us ate 4 dozen [oysters].” But he claimed this was no real feat because “once he’d eaten 12 dozen!”

Believe it or not, these stops were merely “preliminaries.” They continued along the road, “right along the beach,” arriving at “two or three little restaurants where they sell hot shrimps, fried in the shell.” All this consumption generated a good thirst, too. And at the end the reward was beer: “The Brazilian beer is wonderful, much better than the U.S. — as good as the Canadian!” But, Bishop avers, “alas I never touch it any more because of my figger” (that is, figure).

After this mouth watering description, Bishop turned again to saccharine (which she spelled correctly this time), to clarify for Grace that the “liquid” variety she had mentioned before was a product of Park-Davis. The SWEETA was Squibb. She was trying to get their cook to use it. Maria, who clearly enjoyed her own cooking, was “getting fat and complains constantly.” But she refused to use the sweetner because “it tastes bitter! (It doesn’t at all).” In a somewhat superior tone, in light of the excess she had already described to her aunt, Bishop noted that “the Brazilian diet of black beans and rice …. cook[ed] with lard … and potatoes, usually),” along with “black coffee with about half a cup filled with sugar each time” wasn’t “exactly thinning.” Indeed, some might suggest that beans, rice and potatoes is quite a good diet, in contrast to grilled meat, oysters and shrimp! Well, everything in moderation!

During my visit to Brazil in 1999, my favourite meal was breakfast. The little inn where I stayed in Ouro Prêto laid out a lovely buffet with all sorts of delicious breads (I particularly liked one with cheese in it) and fruit. I steered clear of the North American fare that had been thoughtfully added to the menu for the gringos. I am no coffee drinker, but I’ve never tasted better coffee anywhere else. For lunch (if not provided by the conference), we usually went to a place that offered a salad buffet. I’ve never seen so many vegetables and fruits in my life, as well as more lovely breads. Dinners were always some sort of well-prepared meat. I never had Brazilian beer, but certainly tried cachaça (in a wonderful, potent drink called a caipirinha).
One of my most vivid memories of that trip was on the drive back to Rio. We stopped at a roadside BBQ (the equivalent to an North American truck stop, but in Brazil done up in a big way). It was a huge establishment and the sight that was most memorable was the half-dozen fellows in crisp black and white carrying big skewers of barbequed meat around, and slicing off what you wanted right into your plate.
(A feast in Brazil, 1999)
This first letter of the year was a long one, so there will be several more posts about its contents. The next post will be about Christmas Past.

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