Friday, August 5, 2011

Vegetarian “Feijoada” What?!

So there’s this girl who goes by the vegname of Kale Daikon and tells everyone she’s in Brazil investigating South American weird vegetables (and the intersection of Brazilian and North American poetry), but it’s all on the Internet, so for all anyone knows, she could be in Pittsburg making up stories based on a 2005 edition of the Lonely Planet Brazil found in the free box of a used bookstore and posting photos ripped from random websites. But really, I assure you, It’s All True and being broadcast from Rio de Janeiro.

She sits in a room on a Friday night taping three months of receipts into a graph-paper notebook and taking photos of the carefully arranged and labeled receipts so that the U.S. government will reimburse her for every centavo spent on books, photocopies, and subway transportation. Feeling spleenetique and saturated in the thumping sounds of the baile funk blasting from the favela across the way, she gets up, spies on the neighbor’s chubby goat, and takes a break from the tedium to write about the vegetarian “feijoada” she recently made.

This is a Kale that grew up believing a meal wasn’t a meal without meat but who in the last five years has moved steadily toward eating mostly vegetables and “happy” meat (there is no such thing as happily murdered meat, you disgusting human, say the real vegetarians and militant vegans). Her current predicament is that, now finding herself in the land of meat-only meals but with little information on where to find non-industrial “happy” (less tragic?) meat, she finds herself caught in a strange limbo land where she doesn’t exactly call herself vegetarian but has stopped eating meat almost entirely--exceptions made here and there for the torresmo that gets sprinkled on her caldo de feijão at the botecos (the corner bar classic of black bean soup that always arrives with a topping of parsley and crackly pork skin bits).

Not historically a fan of mock meat (seitanic substitutes and suspiciously processed soy), but recovering from a bout of dengue fever that has left her weakened and with blood tests showing a serious dip in B12, she finds herself powerfully drawn to the package of vegetarian feijoada “meat” blops offered for purchase at her favorite local natural foods store, Grão Integral, or “Whole Grain.” The ingredients in this "Mistura para feijoada vegetariana" are listed as: smoked gluten (what?), smoked soy protein (smoked? is there another translation for defumado?), smoked tofu, and "aromatic herbs." Verrrry mysterious.

Feijoada, it should be noted, is the typical national Brazilian dish, famous for its mix of mysterious meat parts (pork scraps, ears, tails, assorted beef parts, sausage slices) camouflaged in a black bean stew. Debate continues over whether this all-day slow-cooked meal to serve at Saturday family feasts, birthdays, and graduation get-togethers is the now-valorized dish derived from a necessarily resourceful slave culture or the descendent of European stews enjoyed by colonial aristocrats, such as the Portuguese cozido and the French cassoulet. It is hard from this vantage point to determine where exactly the truth lies, but the black bean bears its factual weight as the great unifying legume of Brazil (with manioc as the country’s prime root).

This is all to say that bestowing the name “feijoada” on this dish that I cooked up on a Sunday when the pressure cooker was calling out to be used is a serious travesty on two counts: 1) it contains no trace of random pig and cow bits and bobs and 2) is made with brown beans instead of the signature black beans.

This dish may be a poorly-disguised impostor, but it is authentic in at least one aspect relevant to this blog: the smoked soy mock meat blops, which were intentionally varied in shape and color to simulate the vaguely disturbing and curious lumps that one finds buried in the black swirl of traditional feijoada, were very much indeed the Weirdest of Vegetables. They bore an unsettling resemblance to kibble when poured into a shallow dish:

Once boiled for almost an hour with the beans (taking the pressure cooker shortcut), the blops became chewy and bean-juice-saturated and slightly salty, bearing an uncannily meaty texture of alien familiarity. Their buoyant spongency also made them float to the top. The "meat" was a little freaky, but the beans were reassuringly tasty in their broth fortified with the flavors of bay leaf, salt, garlic, and hot pepper oil.

Despite this freakshow experiment that I was ashamed to serve to any true Brazilian, I must claim some credit for at least attempting to complete the “feijoada” with the proper accompaniments: rice (though brown instead of white), sauteed kale (though my chiffonade was too fat), farinha (a yellowish manioc flour that is almost like pouring sand on your meal but is subtly tasty and adds a pleasingly rough layer when mixed into the beans), and sliced oranges meant to be eaten with the meal (not after) to aid digestion.