Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: A Cozinha da Avo

Portuguese school is coming to an end for the year. After driving my children through the gauntlet of conjugating -ar, -er, and -ir verbs (along with the lonely pôr, the only -or verb) in the present tense, I wanted to take it easy for the remaining weeks.

Then I got a text message from the preschool teacher.

Elizabeth, will you be planning a class presentation for the families? I’ve invited the parents to join us on the last day. I’m planning a small skit and two songs from my class. We only have three classes left to prepare.

“Well, I can’t let my students get shown up my a bunch of preschoolers,” I thought. My students are between seven and twelve years old, which doesn’t sound like a big age difference if you’re not a teacher. If you are, you’re probably wondering how I make sure the younger ones are keeping up while the making sure the older ones don’t get bored.

I wonder that too, sometimes.

I remember being trotted out at the end of the school year to prove to my parents that I’d learned something in Portuguese school. One year, my teacher was ambitious and wrote a play.

I’m not that ambitious. Not this year, anyway.

But one year when Young Portuguese Prodigy Liz was ambitious, I asked to pick a poem and recite it. Because I was also Portuguese Teacher’s Pet Liz, I got my way. I’d gone to São Jorge the summer before and picked up a book by a local poet, Jose Soares, because even before puberty, I was already Wannabe Literary Snob Liz. This is the poem I picked.

A cozinha da avó
Tanta coisa que la tinha
Nunca tinha só
Cheiro de pão e farinha:
Cheirava a milho torrado
E a comida caseira,
Açorda e o caldo
E ao fumo de lareira,
As linguiças, penduradas,
Ao toucinho e morcelas
E a favinhas guisadas,
As papinhas com canela
Cheirava a feijão guisado,
Com temperos, à mistura
A peixe, frito e guisado
Aos torresmos com gordura
Tinha o cheiro de repolho
Da couve e da nabiça
Até ao gostoso molho.
De lapas e linguiça
À malagueta que pica,
Só cozida, ou em pó.
Afinal! Era tão rica,
A cozinha da minha avó.

Never say that memorization doesn’t work; almost twenty years later, I still knew half of that poem (I got lost after favinhas because ew, fava beans) without having to look at the book.

While the poem seems like it’s one long stream of consciousness description—my students were very vehement about the fact that this looked like a run-on sentence and run on sentences are bad—you can break it down into quadros, or stanzas of four lines with alternating rhymes. They’re typical of the Azorean poetry I’m familiar with, probably because they’re easy to memorize and recite.

A cozinha da avó (a)
Tanta coisa que la tinha (b)
Nunca tinha só (a)
Cheiro de pão e farinha: (b)

Cheirava a milho torrado (c)
E a comida caseira, (d)
Açorda e o caldo (c)
E ao fumo de lareira, (d)

Etc, etc…

I picked this poem when I was thirteen because it was easy to memorize, the subject matter would go over well with my audience, and I just liked how descriptive it was. If you don’t read Portuguese and haven’t already caved and used Google translate, the poem is a laundry list of all the smells of a humble Azorean kitchen. What’s not to like?

I don’t believe in direct, word-to-word translation. But since I was trying to teach vocabulary, I gave the kids my usual spiel of why word-to-word translation is not real translation and definitely not poetry before having them pick out the words they did know and then filling in the blanks.

I haven’t come back to this poem for almost twenty years. Since then, I’ve racked up a couple degrees in words, English and otherwise. It took teaching this poem for me to discover it’s deeper meaning. All you need to translate is the beginning and the end.

A cozinha da avó / In Grandmother’s kitchen
Tanta coisa que la tinha / There were so many things
Nunca tinha só / It didn’t only have
Cheiro de pão e farinha: / The smell of bread and flour.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love the smell of flour and freshly baked bread. But it’s a simple smell. Hardly what you’d associate with luxury. After these opening lines, the poem goes on listing the smells of this kitchen. Grilled corn, smoked linguica, Azorean stew, jarred and powdered peppers, blood sausage, fried and baked fish, cabbage and kale and all sorts of greens, beans and bacon, and the list goes on. What the food lacks in luxury, it makes up for in abundance.

Never once do we hear what that kitchen looks like. Twenty years passed and I never picked up on that until my students asked me. I had to explain to them how poor the Azores used to be, how a woodburning stove doubled as a place to cook and the thing that kept your small stone house warm. These are kids that are growing up in Silicon Valley with smartphones and fidget spinners. This kind of life is completely alien to them.

And yet…

Afinal! Era tão rica, / In the end! It was so rich
A cozinha da minha avó. / the kitchen of my grandmother.

Yes, his grandmother was poor as far as we see it. But the poet didn’t feel that way. By eliminating our sense of sight, we don’t see how poor she was. Country food smells just as good—if not better—than something from a Michelin starred restaurant. Our senses are limited only to the wonderful smells coming out of the kitchen. That’s abundance. That’s luxury. That’s rich.

I had two grandmothers the last time I read this. Now I have none. No matter how successful I am, or how much money I make, I will never get them back. They will never make me Portuguese food again. They went out of the way to make it palatable enough for their picky American granddaughter, too. I can’t even remember the last thing my Madrinha Julia cooked for me. I do remember that Avó Honoria was pleasantly surprised that I liked morcela.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to figure out to make Portuguese food for dinner tonight.

3 Comments on “Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: A Cozinha da Avo”

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