When food migrates but a family is divided

Learning to Cook Brazilian

by Daniela Gerson

Learning to Cook Brazilian

Randi Baird

Jessica and Dolglas Nascimento's children, Kahlia and Luke, in Tisbury.  

Jessica Nascimento, a blond-haired Massachusetts native, was raised on chili, American chop suey, and shepherd’s pie. But on an August afternoon last year she deftly juggled four burners to prepare one of her Brazilian husband’s favorite dishes, chicken with okra. As the oil bubbled up around the tubular vegetables and turned a kelp-like green, Jessica put a few fresh cloves of garlic in a jar and started to grind them with a pestle by hand. On the Vineyard, the 30-year-old waitress noted happily, the bag of jasmine long-grain rice comes separated and washed. Not so in Brazil, where she had learned to sort the seeds and rinse the grains. She got the garlic mash to sizzle in a separate pan and then poured the rice in, cooking until just before it burned—the Brazilian secret to infusing it with flavor.

As she worked, Jessica kept an eye out the window on her two pre-school-aged children who were jumping rope and speaking in a fluid mixture of languages. “He speaks English 100 percent and he speaks Portuguese 100 percent” Jessica said, referring to her bilingual 5-year-old son Luke (two-and-a-half-year-old Kahlia is better at Portuguese right now). “He just doesn’t really understand that Martha’s Vineyard and the US are the same thing. My son sees the world in three parts, ‘Brazil, the Island, and the United States.”

The Brazilian influx to the Vineyard began in 1986 when a native of a town neighboring Cuparaque, Lyndon Johnson Pereira, followed a job tip to the Island. He told a few friends and sparked the largest immigration wave to the Island since the Portuguese, more than a century ago. Although actual numbers are unknown, there is no question the community has grown to the thousands.

Jessica and her family belong to an emerging hybrid identity of Brazilian and US-born Islanders, where cultures mesh even when immigration laws sometimes present obstacles. In 2008, roughly a quarter of the babies born on the Vineyard had a Brazilian mother (down from nearly a third the year before), creating new families in which the children are Americans by birth and the parents Brazilians. In the case of families like the Nascimentos, where one parent is American and the other Brazilian, there is an added layer of complexity.

While that complexity has brought integration and policy challenges, it has also introduced a new cultural dynamism that is particularly evident in shifts to Island cuisine. A century ago the “Portuguese brought their flavors and taste over and popularized them,” says David Leite, author of The New Portuguese Table. Now, Brazilians (whose cuisine, as a former colony, is also heavily influenced by the Portuguese) are introducing new flavors to New England. At any of the towns down-Island, one can buy items from manioc flour to Amazonian juices. The Brazilian staple of beans and rice can be found at various lunch counters, including the Scottish Bakehouse. And in families like the Nascimentos, new recipes and traditions are emerging from the mixture of Brazilian and American influences.

For Jessica, the “bold garlicky salty flavor” of Brazilian rice changed the way she looked at food. Home cooking played a big part of her upbringing, but if her mother cooked rice, it was bland, “boil-a-bag white rice.” When Jessica was 22 years old, before she met Dolglas, she had another Brazilian boyfriend. She wasn’t in love with the guy, who was a “wicked wild party boy,” but she loved his rice. For nearly a year, she said, “I stayed with him because I was literally scared that I would not have that rice again.”

Six months after breaking up with that boyfriend, in 2003, a coworker at a restaurant where Jessica was waiting tables introduced her to another Brazilian—this one a sweet, soft-spoken complement to her extroverted nature. Dolglas Nascimento, a painter on the Island, had stopped by a friend’s house en route to buy a car in Boston. “Jessica entered the door,” he recalled, “and I already liked her.” Jessica was also hooked: “When he smiled at me, I was just like ‘ahh.’ I was caught. That’s it, I’m done.” She came to spend the summer on the Island, and stayed through the winter, getting a job as a waitress at Linda Jean’s Restaurant.

It took only a few months for Jessica to discover that Dolglas, like many of the other Brazilians she had met, lacked a valid visa. But at the time it barely gave her pause. She had already fallen for him, and felt whether he was technically legal or illegal, she could trust him completely. Plus, his status did not affect their lifestyle much at the time. Dolglas had first arrived when he was 20 in 2000, and shared a house in Vineyard Haven with 23 other Brazilians. But by the time Jessica was in the picture he had a home near the airport with just one other couple. The Island building boom needed extra labor, and employers and local authorities often turned a blind eye to immigration status. Dolglas and his housemates had more than enough work. Evenings, no matter what they cooked—barbequed meat, chicken with okra, even pasta—there was always that rice. “You love me just for the rice,” Dolglas used to tease her. Jessica would say no, but this time she decided she would learn to make it for herself. Viviane da Silveira, the Brazilian woman who shared the apartment, was her teacher. “I would never cook anything before I met my husband,” said Jessica, but after Dolglas, “I learned to cook, cooking Brazilian.”

To be more specific, she learned to cook mineira, one of many Brazilian regional cuisines. The South American country is about the size of the continental United States and home to a highly differentiated culinary tradition—from the exotic fish of the Amazon, to the spicy, heavily African-influenced stews of the Northeast, to the European meatrich diet of the southern pampas. Most of the Brazilians on the Island come from Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, two southeastern states north of Rio de Janeiro. Comida mineira, or the food of Minas, is one of Brazil’s most famous culinary traditions. The cuisine is hearty and home-style, reflecting
the mining background and heavily agricultural nature of the region. A signature dish is what Jessica made for me last August: chicken with okra, a vegetable that was brought along with slaves from West Africa.

Jessica honed these recipes during a much longer than expected stay in Cuparaque. She traveled in September 2008 with Dolglas (who was by then her husband) and their two young children to the lush town encircled by towering rock faces. It was Dolglas’ first visit home in eight years. He traveled to Brazil under the assumption that now that he was married to an American, he would be able to reenter the United States legally. The quick fix never happened. The U.S. Consulate rejected their request—even though he was employed, married with U.S.-born children, and had paid his taxes. In the eyes of immigration authorities, these actions were not enough to counter the fact that when Dolglas was 20 years old his father had used a false last name on a visa to help gain entry for him and his family.

For months the couple remained in limbo waiting for an answer to their appeal from the State Department office in Lima. Much of Jessica’s days were spent cooking on the outside stove. “Everything was so different down there,” she said. “Everything was fresh. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a package of chicken wings,” she said. “Most of the time when I was living there we just killed our own chickens, boiled them and fried them. When we wanted the manioca or yucca, we pulled it out of the ground and cleaned it.” Despite challenges like water that sometimes came out thick with mud or mosquitoes that carried dengue fever, Jessica found much to love about Cuparaque. The fruit trees were a feast alone: mango, papaya, jackfruit, orange, banana, coconut. In Jessica’s free time, she pushed her daughter Kahlia in a stroller around the dusty roads, rode horses in the mountains, and learned how to make the special sugary treats for which Minas Gerais is famous. But then the State Department rejected Dolglas’ appeal, Kahlia got sick, and money was running out. Jessica was left with no choice but to leave on her own with the kids. “I’m wicked scared,” she said at the time.

Jessica spent last summer in a small one-bedroom cottage behind her Brazilian sister-in-law’s home in Vineyard Haven. Her waitressing salary at Linda Jean’s was barely enough to support the two young children, and she had shed 60 pounds out of worry. Her wedding ring no longer fit. At one point half her face froze into a partial paralysis induced by the stress. In need of financial and emotional support, last winter Jessica moved near her mother in Middleborough but remains in flux, shuttling her kids often to see her inlaws on the Vineyard.

Dolglas is now living on a farm outside of Cuparaque. “I want to come home so bad,” he said, referring to the Vineyard. “I call it home, because it’s my home because I love it. I want to work, but I can’t. I miss my family, my friends, my job, my kids. Everything.” Not only is he lonely, but he has had to get used to being a bachelor after years of Jessica’s cooking. “When I’m by myself I cook rice, beans, beef, and sometimes eggs too,” he said. He doesn’t know how to cook his Brazilian favorites that Jessica used to make like feijão tropeiro, the bean and sausage dish with manioc flour; or chicken and okra. And nobody in Cuparque can make for him her American specialties. “When we lived there I loved so much when she made for me chili. I think she learned to cook what I like to eat,” he said. Even over the crackling of a distant phone line and the roar of a soccer match in the background, his wavering voice betrayed he was clearly at the edge of breaking down. “Many people told me I was very lucky because not every American woman learned Brazilian cooking. And she loved to cook for me.”

At dinnertime in a Massachusetts kitchen, Jessica would prepare another of Dolglas’s favorites, canjiquinha, a yellow corn stew with chicken. Instead of a fresh whole chicken, she substituted drumsticks from the supermarket. When she cooks, her mind travels. “I think of him all the time,” she said, her voice competing with the squeals of her children. Then she went to set the table, yet another meal for which she would not put out a plate for her husband.