“Come, querida. Eat, darling.”
That’s how I’d finished eulogizing my grandmother at her funeral in Carona, Queens, before her body was flown back to Sao Miguel, the largest island in the cluster of the Portuguese Azores. A first-generation American, my Portuguese is limited. But food I speak, and this oft-repeated phrase from my avó – come querida – had stuck.
Packed into a tiny rental car with my father, one of my uncles and my American photographer as we speed from the airport in Ponta Delgada to our town of Povoação, I wonder if I can get by with the basics. I’ll be taking the photographer, Brent, all over the island to places I remember from my many visits over the years, and to a few I’ve never been: the one remaining vineyard on the island, a slaughterhouse with a restaurant attached, one of the many pineapple farms. I’m unsure of my language skills, but hope they’ll return to me as they have many trips over before.
It takes us less than two hours to cross the island, a new highway drastically cutting out some of the meandering roads I’d driven many times in the past. It’s March, earlier in the year than any other time I’ve come, and cool, wet air hits us from all sides. We climb the land thrust skyward thousands of years ago by volcanoes, and the rotten-egg smell of sulfur sometimes drifts downwind from open springs to make sure we remember where it’s all come from. In the front seat, my dad and Tio Octavio absentmindedly speak a muddle of both languages, pointing out the Japanese cryptomerias that grow so tall that native plants dwindle in their shade, or trying to remember which friend had lived in which house and if they were still alive. By the time we’ve made it to Povoação we are damp, jetlagged, and spent.
Stretching out in my grandparents’ bed – a mattress on a wire frame with a metal headboard, flanked by statues of Catholic saints and covered with a hand-made throw slightly musky from the nearby sea air – I realized that things seem less romantic than they had been on my prior trip, that one a bit harsher in reality than the one before, and so on, all the way back to that first rose-colored visit alone with my father when I was about eleven. My stints since have been largely celebratory, lazy days spent on the rocky beaches with family, long meals on rickety tables outside. My avo’s kale soup, the bread from her oven in the garage, the sardines she’d fry, the shellfish we’d eat by the beach, the stews of pork and potatoes… I crave this food at home when needing comfort. I’d always considered it special, and worth holding onto and sharing.
But is it? Food here doesn’t strive to be beautiful. It’s meant to sustain, to be shared with family, with friends. I’m not yet sure if it could be significant from an outsider’s perspective, or if I want it to be.
After an hour’s rest we’re walking across the town square to a cafe owned by friends – my grandparent’s house is the only free-standing home on the central point of the village and, surrounded by banana and orange trees with pens once filled by pigs and geese and chickens, it’s a vulnerable piece of property. The owners of the cafe, Carlos and Maria, have watched it for years. At one time they watched my grandmother, too, after my grandfather had died and she summered there alone. We enter the café and they’re all smiles and hugs, and queries about our family in their charming, broken English, still far more conversational than my Portuguese.
We sit, and immediately bread is brought to the table along with cheese from the neighboring island of Sao Jorge – so funky and pungent it makes your mouth itch – and queijo de cabra, soft goat cheese made locally that we sprinkle with salt before spreading in a thick layer. It’s still morning, so my father orders the gentlemen galaos – espresso with an enormous quantity of steamed cow’s milk – and I sit with a cha verde – green tea – before muscling up for a short espresso of my own.
The café is small. Pictures and newspaper clippings hang behind a wall of glass. An ancient cigarette machine still hums in the corner, and a small television above flickers futbol matches and harsh Portuguese pop music. Behind the counter fufas, the Portuguese equivalent of éclairs, are laid out fresh and warm, recently piped with a thick cream that Maria makes daily and I have yet to master at home, though I’ve tried several times. She takes me into the kitchen to try again with her guidance, and as I pipe pastry dough and marvel at how light and soft they puff up to in the oven, my worries that Azorean food might be lacking start to melt.
My father and Tio have business to do, as our family’s been in constant, gentle debate as to what to do with my grandparents’ house now that they’re both gone and their grandchildren have children of their own and don’t come back to the island as often. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I slowly back down the steep hill next to our house, saying a quick prayer that my fleeting memories of roads and byways and my pathetic Portuguese won’t be too obvious to the trusting American I’ve brought with me to capture my island.
Today I will take him to Furnas. But first I need to stop and see my grandparents.
There’s a unique mode of burial on Sao Miguel: buried bodies are dug up after seven years. The remains are then either tucked into tiny mini-coffins and placed in mausoleums or homes or buried again in mass graves. Our family mausoleum looks out over Povoação and my grandparents, great-grandparents and two of my grandfather’s siblings rest there. While Brent takes in the view I sweep cobwebs from the corners of the small stone space and set paper flowers upright again. On top of each casket it a picture, and I say hello to my relatives in both languages, just in case. It is a peaceful place, and it brings me odd comfort to know that my body will be there someday, too.
As we continue our drive, Brent’s camera rising now and then to snap, I explain that Sao Miguel is comprised primarily of volcanoes and calderas, open lakes and hot springs heated by the fires below. Though there hasn’t been an eruption in centuries, the collision of three major tectonic plates in the cluster of islands caused many fissures and floods. The town of Furnas, one over from Povacao, has both furiously boiling geysers and a large, open lake surrounded by ground so hot that food we bury in it cooks within hours. That we’ll explore with my family another day: today we head to the springs.
They’re quiet, shockingly so compared to the families and small fleets of local tourists that flock to them in the summer months. Yet they’ve changed from the first time I visited, over twenty years ago now. Back then my father had warned me of children goofing around and falling into the springs, their skin melting off as they were pulled back to safety, many never surviving their burns. I trick Brent into trying the three types of water pouring from a small cliff: one clear and cold, another bubbling warm and stinking with minerals. Huge bags of fresh corn are often cooked in the geysers, but as it’s a quiet Monday afternoon none are offered, so instead I find the yellow door that leads to bolos levedos, thick pancake-like rounds of bread I ask for hot – quente. Their griddled sides are gray and grainy, eggy yellow inside and sweet, with a slight tang from the water. These I can also make back at home with success, but there’s something about this water…
…To be continued…