Cooking in the Ground
Family and Feasting in Furnas
Sao Miguel, Azores
My father grew up on Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean islands in the Atlantic, part of Portugal. As a visiting child, I was both haunted and mesmerized by the town of Furnas, one over from our Povoação. There, open hot springs billowed white smoke furiously into the air and dove indefinitely into the volcanic ground below. They permeated everything around them with the nauseating smell of spoiled eggs. If you weren’t careful, you could lose your lunch on the winding. dizzying roads while breezing through. My father would tell his children and nieces and nephews haunting stories of troublesome kids who played too close to the open springs, and how their skin would melt off as they were pulled to safety. Mischievous to his core, we hoped his tale was one akin to stories an uncle would weave of magical lands and fairies that lived just beyond where we could see in the deepest recesses of the stony springs.
I’ve returned to Sao Miguel many times since that first trip, and I’ve come to appreciate more and more the tradition of cooking food in the ground at Furnas. As a child my avó – my grandmother – would prepare a large pot layered with meat and potatoes and vegetables, and strong men would lower it into the ground and cover it with wood and stone. As we played by the small lake or flipped cards at picnic tables, the pot would sizzle. And just when the sun took a turn to the west, it would be pulled up and out and serve the massive group of family there.
It’s a special place.
Now that both of my grandparents are gone, our friends at the cafe in our town prepare the pot for us, joining us in the feast as we drink wine and talk about things grownups who rarely see each other like to talk about. It’s not the same, and it always makes me miss my avó horribly. But the magic and wonder have been replaced by a deep gratitude for the unique experience, and a respect for those on the island who still make their Sundays about lowering a pot of meat and potatoes into the ground, and spending lazy time together until it’s ready to feast them.