Oct/Nov 2007   Travel

Dinner with Vera

by Lygia Ballantyne

They say food is love. I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly is forever mixed with friendship, love, and the stages of one's life. That's what I'm thinking when Vera rings me from the lobby of the residence hotel in Rio, beckoning me for a night out to eat.

"Jajá, come down quick; I'm starving, and we want to arrive early or the place will be packed."

My daughter Anita and I lock the apartment and ride down the elevator to meet Vera and her daughter, Mariana. I smile at the thought that Vera is still calling me "Jajá," the only nickname anyone ever gave me. She had in mind the scrumptious coconut ice cream that was sold—maybe still is—at the beach in Rio when we were young. "Jajá de coco" was one of her favorite flavors. Vera, of course, is one of my favorite cousins.

The elevator doors open, and we greet each other with hugs and blown kisses and all the terms of endearment that go with greetings in Brazil. They pat Anita's six-month pregnant belly.

"How's the darling boy today? Does he have a name yet?"

"Not yet," says Anita. And I know there will be an interminable search for names before the night is over.

Vera and I have shared a lifetime of friendship. I lived for a year at her house in Rio between family moves. She lived a year with us in Porto Alegre while her parents spirited her elder sister off to New York in an attempt to thwart an undesirable suitor. (The ruse didn't work, and the suitor became the husband.) Vera and I are less than a year apart in age. We have gone through adolescence, boyfriends, heartaches, and eventually, marriage, motherhood, and menopause—in tandem. Our daughters were born a year apart and have, in turn, become best friends during the eight years we spent in Rio when they were children. The fact that my marriage and job took me from Brazil and kept me away for most of our adult lives did not affect our friendship. Every time I return to Rio and we see each other, I feel as if I have never left.

We start walking down Dias Ferreira, the girls ahead of us, Vera and I right behind. The narrow sidewalk is crowded, and we negotiate our way around people. Going out to eat is a way of life in Rio, as popular as going to the beach or exercising in the gym. Vera points out a new place:

"This sushi bar is all the rage now," she says. Vera keeps abreast of all the new good places to eat, as restaurants come and go in Rio.

Vera has always loved food, even when she was a willowy, dark haired, slim-waisted beauty, as quintessential a Rio lovely as the one immortalized in the bossa nova song "The Girl from Ipanema." After a carefree youth during which she changed boyfriends with predictable regularity, she married a soul mate with the same—or even greater—appreciation for the good table. Unfortunately, that was just about the only thing they had in common and, as it turned out, not enough to keep the marriage going. There was too much space between meals that couldn't be filled. Separated, quite well off, and growing older, Vera's love of food intensified. In her middle age, she decided to learn Italian and explore Italian cuisine up close. She shipped herself off to Turin, alone, the first of several linguistic and culinary explorations of the country. Her peregrinations through Italy seemed to be a continuing discovery of "wonderful people," whom she immediately turned into friends for life—good restaurants and memorable dishes. Her letters from Italy consisted entirely of luscious descriptions of food. She loves to cook and is forever giving me recipes for "very easy but delicious" things to try.

Past the Japanese sushi bar, she talks about her latest find:

"My dear Italian friend gave me this marvelous recipe for polenta which cooks in five minutes; it will be great for Anita and the baby. I eat my black beans over it," she explains, in what sounds to me like the ultimate treason.

"Who ever heard of beans over polenta?! Whatever happened to rice?"

"Try it, you'll like it," she replies. That is pure Vera, forever willing to try something new, forever adventurous.

As we go past three-star restaurants, upscale food markets, fresh fruit juice bars, and lowly stand-up-only watering holes where one drinks the best tap beer this side of Munich—all doing a crisp business on this Monday night—the food talk continues.

"I'm having fierce urges for "Sonho de Valsa" bonbons," declares Anita. "This baby will be born addicted to chocolate, like his mom."

"Have you bought your Japanese peanuts yet?" asks Vera. Everyone who knows me knows of my love of this lightly salted, soy sauce-coated delight, which Japanese immigrants introduced to Brazil. I have seen them only in one other place in the world—Tibet—sold by street vendors much like they are in Rio.

"Of course! But I also have stocked up on fresh Minas cheese and small papayas for breakfast." The memory of the white silkiness of the farmer's cheese on a slice of buttered French bread, warm from the neighborhood bakery, puts me in a state of grace. I can almost smell the strong coffee I drink with it. I am hungry and ready for dinner.

From Dias Ferreira we turn right onto Conde Bernadotte and soon arrive at our destination: spreading onto a sidewalk in a lively corner of Leblon, "Academia da Cachaça" is the one place that has survived every economic downturn and the fickleness of the cariocas, as the inhabitants of Rio are known. This small restaurant is named after the Brazilian sugarcane spirit which, when mixed with fresh fruit, ice cubes and sugar, is known as "caipirinha" or "little hillbilly." The restaurant owner and main chef is one of Vera's legions of friends.

The food is straight from the northeastern family table. You may find the fare a little strange, if not used to it, but will be charmed by the caipirinha at very first sip. The bottles of cachaça lining the Academia's walls as books on library shelves have whimsical, evocative names: Golden Key, Hummingbird, Old Trails, Crystalline, My Goddess, Magnificent, Full Moon... You may wish to pick your favorite brand, if you have one, and will have to select the fruit to mix it with. So, the orders may go something like this:

"The usual, Manuel," says Vera to the waiter in attendance, who served her many other nights. This means she will have a Persian lime caipirinha, with "Magnificent," mixed without pulp or sugar, and a black bean soup with fried bacon bits for starters.

"I'll stick to the traditional: a lime caipirinha with lots of pulp and a little sugar. What cachaça do you recommend goes best with limes?" I ask.

"Try 'Golden Key,'" answers Manuel. "And to eat?"

"Good, give me a plate of fried yucca fingers." The hardy manioc root—which we boil, then sauté—could have saved Ireland from famine in the eighteen-thirties if it had been introduced there in lieu of potatoes, I think.

"Passion fruit with 'Full Moon,' no sugar, but bring some artificial sweetener to the table, and I'll have the shrimp with coconut milk," concludes Mariana.

"A bottle of mineral water, without gas," sighs Anita with a long face, "And cheese empadas."

The food is brought in and is shared around with approving nods and rolled eyeballs. A second round of caipirinhas is ordered and downed, more cheese empadas, and the chatter intensifies and deepens. Vera gets sentimental and falls back into her "Jajá mood," and we reminisce about our youthful escapades. The girls exchange knowing glances.

"Alexandre!" says Mariana, suddenly remembering Anita's still nameless baby.

"Nice, but... we would have to change the spelling in the U.S. to Alexander. Doesn't quite work," says Anita.

"Mario," proposes Vera.

"Gabriel," I suggest. "Isn't that nice?"

"Sam, Sammy, Samuel," says Anita. "I just love this name."

"No!" we exclaim in unison. "Samuel will not work in Brazil at all."

It is clear Anita's baby will remain nameless for a while...

Nights like this have been a constant in my many trips to Brazil. The unpretentious, homey food, expertly cooked and savored at leisure, the superb caipirinhas made with the sweetest fruit and this golden liquid fire distilled in countless family farms throughout Brazil, and, above all, the company of those we love: what more can one wish for on a warm summer night in Rio?

On the sidewalk around us, and all over the city, the country, the world—lovers, families, friends share good food, drink, and conversation somewhere. I feel one with the world as I lift a final bit of fried yucca to my mouth and sip the last drop of lime-flavored "Golden Key" from my glass.


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