The Amazon Jungle and a New York City Girl: Local Eats
"You can arrive quickly but you aren't there until you experience the journey." This is a popular saying between Eugenio and the natives during my trip to the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest (As covered here and here.). Later, it becomes my mantra for local eating. My pampered Park Slope life offers everything a city girl can ask for within a three-block-radius. Well-stocked bodegas boast pre-cut melon, pineapple, and mango—even during the dead chill of winter. Though my green conscious usually gets the better side of me, I'd be lying if I didn't say I've caved and satiated my mango cravings from time to time. But more often though, I'm blameworthy for my morning staples of coffee and bananas, which were they people, would experience major jet lag for food miles traveled.
In Brazil, Sameness (Not Variety) is the Spice of Life
I expected my stay in the Amazon to be the perfect excuse to guiltlessly indulge in local, tropical treats (Though I knew it took me a long (offsetted) airplane ride to arrive there). So indulge I did. Every morning I fuel up over an array of pineapple, bananas, perfectly brewed, locally grown cafÃ©, and simple breads with cheese. I learn that these are the staples to an Amazonian breakfast, just as Piracu (a large fish), rice, manioc (a starchy grain), salad and salsa make for both a delicious lunch and dinner.
What I hadn't expected however, was the sameness of our meals. Like clock-work, we eat identical breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day. You'd think I would have grown tired eating the same grub day in and day out but there is something comforting and unifying in what becomes the predictability of these meals. It's an exercise on my desensitized, NYC taste buds, so used to the city's famously schizophrenic world cuisine best summarized by the take-out menus brimming out of my kitchen drawer.
Learning to Love Papaya: It Tastes Better from a Tree
I discover that a papaya is a papaya but no one is exactly like another. My first encounter with the odd-shaped fruit was on native soil, at my local food coop. I had just read about its super-food health properties and was inspired to start integrating it into my diet. Its wannabe cantaloupe flavor though was a disappointment so it wasn't until the plane ride down to Brazil where I decided to give it another chance. The slices perched atop my mini-salad were still a let down. I would have given up on the fruit altogether were I not to find out it's served with almost every Amazonian meal. (If the Amazon had a fruit homecoming, the papaya would take crown.) Seeing everyone indulge in the juicy bites had me second guessing myself so on one of our final mornings, I give the orangey flesh one last try. Let's just say this gave meaning to the phrase, "Third times a charm." It made sense. Of course, the papaya would taste perfectly fresh and flavorful having not traveled much further than a tree or two away from the table where we ate.
Meat Appreciation: 101
The Brazilian BBQ is another lesson in local food appreciation. I spend one night perched aside a campfire built by two community natives, Pedrino and Jedu. The steel grill placed above the flame, serves as their canvas, brushed evenly with sausages and steak. As we watch the fat drip onto the hot coals underneath, so drips away my natural vegetarian partiality. This isn't the factory farm, hormone-laden meat I'm so used to turning away. This is wild Amazonian meat so I cave. Pedrino begins serving up samplings straight off the grill. What tastes like perfection, I'm told is far from it. Thus begins a five-stage sampling of a single kind of sausage and a single kind of steak; the difference between each sampling being a matter of minutes, if not seconds, cooking time. With this my palette becomes more refined. I start to notice the crispier casing the sausage takes and the smokier salt flavor of the beef.
This experience was new to me having been raised in a house where food was sustenance, not a craft. If one night our dinner salad had mealy tomatoes, but the next had perfectly vine-ripened ones, it was still just a salad. You'd think that in America, particularly a wealthy suburb, we'd have the time and money to afford the best of the best whether it was homegrown or store bought at a gourmet market. But like my experience with the papaya, it's here, in the heart of the jungle, under the guidance of Amazon natives, eating only what the land has to offer, where one can learn what tastes best by appreciating the subtle differences between the same food object. Eating simply and locally can become a true luxurious and blissful affair, for those with or without a lot of money.
Not your ordinary O.J. The Amazon is home to hundreds of locally made beverages from fruits such as naranjilla, guayaba, uvilla, obos, taxo, and morete.
Like the Amazonians, I will pride in picky eating. I won't falter for the faulty, foreign fruit, the bland banana or mushy mango. I will rejoice in learning the subtle differences between my neighborhood's local food offerings like the Cameo and Empire apples from Hepworth Farms. I could consider this biding time until July's blueberries (my favorite fruit) arrive, but like the indigenous people say, "You can arrive quickly but you aren't there until you experience the journey."
(I'll soon be picking up a "No Menus" sign from my neighborhood's civic council to place on my apartment's front door.)