Sopa Is Served: An Honorable Family Feast
by Heather Hamacek
Who says soup isn’t served in summer? Sometimes a sweltering day calls for an equally simmering soup. The Portuguese know this, and they serve up some of the best summer sopa for the Feast of the Holy Ghost, hosted every July in Oak Bluffs.
The Feast is an Azorean celebration of Queen Isabel of Spain who fed the poor by hiding bread in the folds of her dress. When she was caught and ordered to show what she was hiding, Queen Isabel said a prayer, opened the folds of her dress and out tumbled roses instead of bread. A parade down Circuit Avenue is followed by free sopa in honor of Queen Isabel’s generosity, but for the full feast experience or just some really good Azorean food, the night before at the Portuguese American Club night can’t be missed.
Sopa is served out of the kitchen in the way back of the club. Ask for directions and you’ll be directed to Dylan Estrella and A.J. deBettencourt, the soup maistros. Dylan does the cooking, A.J. does the talking. “It’s your basic potatoes, crushed tomatoes, linguica, chorizo, Portuguese allspice, other secret spices, cabbage, onion, beef and all that,” says A.J. Plus cinnamon and mint.
In order for it to be ready for the evening festivities, soup preparation starts in the early morning. It begins with a marriage of beef and mint in the bottom of what they call “the coffin.” Sounds morbid, but the coffin is a large rectangular cooking pot that gets set up outside the back of the kitchen. The rest of the ingredients are poured on top of the beef and mint.
A.J. took the lid off the coffin, revealing the vat of sopa below.
“That’s it in its purest form,” he says, stirring the soup with a wooden paddle.
Doled into disposable square bowls, sopa is handed to diners, who then top the soup with chunks of bread to soak up the flavor and additional leaves of mint. Droplets of grease skim the surface of the clear red broth with quartered potatoes, onions and cabbage, and three different types of meat. There’s a subtle spiciness that travels to the very back of your mouth, and towards your nose.
But the Feast isn’t only about soup. There are the carne espeto (kebabs) that are cooked to order on long medieval looking skewers over a pit of hot coals, used only once a year for this exact purpose.
There’s the cacoila, a slightly spicy slow-cooked pork sandwich that gives you all the pork you could ever need, with an extra helping just in case.
Top it off with the fried dough, doused in powdered sugar and best eaten scalding hot while wandering past carnival games and other food booths.
A family on the end of a picnic table took stock of their pile of empty plates and crumpled napkins. All that was left were empty cobs, oyster shells and smears of grease.
“I think we got all the greatest hits,” said one woman. After all, they had stopped at every booth.