Tropical Island

by Chris Hufstader

Tropical Island

Elizabeth Cecil

Taioba for sale: Zoraia Barros, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst, helped to sell more than 50 taioba plants at Vineyard Grocer this spring.  

Meal times for Elio Silva are usually a rushed thing—especially in the summer months. The 39-year-old Brazilian entrepreneur is slim, with dark eyes, and a natural networker. He runs two stores and is a leader of the Brazilian community on the Island, so there’s always something to do, a question to answer, a decision to make. But one day last August he went to his home in Oak Bluffs a little earlier than usual. He was looking forward to a special meal: His wife Fogaça was cooking taioba (tie-OH-bah), a leafy vegetable he used to eat when he was growing up in Brazil.

Elio took one taste of the taioba and suddenly he was back in Minas Gerais, on his family farm. Fogaça had prepared the vegetable just as his mother used to—sautéed with garlic and olive oil, and served with polenta.

“It was like I was 15 years old, sitting in my kitchen, eating taioba and polenta, chicken and okra,” Elio said the following spring, looking at new taioba plants ready to be planted. “I was transported in time, and even the air felt a little warmer…when you eat taioba, the weather changes. There are very few vegetables I eat that I can say that.”

Elio is one of a number of Brazilians living on Martha’s Vineyard growing taioba, jiló (sort of like an eggplant), and maxixe (a spiny-looking cucumber), three so-called ethnic crops provided by the University of Massachusetts Extension program in Amherst. Professor Frank Mangan of UMass brought the plants to Massachusetts to help farmers find new markets for vegetables. He got the idea from a survey of supermarket managers that estimated more than 45 percent of buyers of fresh fruit and vegetables are immigrants, who are accustomed to cooking their traditional dishes from scratch. Then he started looking at immigrant populations in Massachusetts, and it was easy to see the high numbers of Brazilians—250,000, more than in any other state as a potential market for growers. During his travels in Brazil researching crops, Frank discovered the deep connection that many Brazilians have with the nutritious taioba; it’s like their soul food, and it’s always available since it grows like a weed in backyards, on river banks—really everywhere.

“We grew some taioba on the research farm in Deerfield three years ago and we did a couple of events at a supermarket in Ashland,” Frank says. “We sold 30 cases in 15 minutes. Brazilians came from 150 miles away; it blew me away. For Brazilians, especially from Minas Gerais, food is really important to their culture, and for them there is nothing like taioba.” Minas Gerais is a highly populated state in southeastern Brazil known for its fertile mountains and valleys, its breathtaking waterfalls and ancient caverns, and for its coffee and its milk. It’s also the place that most Massachusetts Brazilians have emigrated from.

When Frank met Elio, he realized they could work with growers here on Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a high concentration of Brazilians living and working, and that they could also help commercial growers as well as Brazilians themselves grow and sell taioba, as well as jiló and maxixe. Elio introduced Frank to Ali Berlow, Executive Director of Island Grown Initiative, a group that works to promote more locally grown food on the Island. With Frank, IGI created an ethnic crops program. “This was the spark,” Elio says, “to helping commercial growers on the Island connect with restaurants and retailers interested in taioba.” Together, Frank and Ali got Norton Farm and Whippoorwill Farm to try growing the plants, and this year Morning Glory Farm and Whippoorwill Farm are growing and selling taioba.

Morning Glory’s Jim Athearn says he was intrigued by taioba the minute he saw it. “It is just a lusty plant, with those big green leaves,” he says holding a taioba ready to be planted. “I had to have some.” Jim’s son, Simon Athearn, has taken a special interest in the ethnic crops, and this year has decided to plant not only taioba and maxixe (both will be for sale in the farmstand), but also a striped Armenian cucumber that is particularly sweet.

Over at Whippoorwill, Andrew Woodruff is planning to include taioba in his usual mix of vegetables and fruit available to his 400 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program customers, and see what his American customers think when taioba leaves appear with their tomatoes, onion, lettuce, and broccoli.

Local restaurant chefs like Robert Lionette at Zephrus and Daniele Dominick at the Scottish Bakehouse have also made Brazilian vegetables an ongoing part of their menus.

Frank has a lot of confidence in the market on Martha’s Vineyard. Not only is the Brazilian market enthusiastic about the new crops, but Elio reported that many of the taioba plants sold this spring from his Tisbury Farm Market went to non-Brazilians. “That’s the fun thing about Martha’s Vineyard,” Frank says. “There is a population interested in being adventuresome with food, so there may be a fusion with a non-Brazilian market.” Frank sees the Island as sort of an economic laboratory to see what level of taioba supply and price can saturate the market.

Apart from the agricultural and economic aspects of growing taioba, as well as maxixe and jiló, the ethnic crops are also helping Brazilians to feel more rooted on the Island. Like many of the Island’s Brazilians, Elio was born on a farm. “I see the farm as a basis for society. Many years ago, the Island used to grow all its own food—now it’s all imported,” he says. By becoming farmers— or growers—perhaps Brazilians can help the Island become more sustainable and also help to increase the supply of affordable food for working people.

Ademar Lana, a 44-year-old Brazilian who’s been living on the Island for four years now, started growing taioba last year because it reminded him of his home in Mato Grosso, a state in western Brazil. Ademar is a burly man, with a friendly round face and pale blue eyes. He says his five plants flourished with his organic compost and attentive care, and he won the blue ribbon at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair last August. All the more exciting, as this was the first year—in more than 140 years—that a category for Brazilian vegetables was created at the Fair. “I had no expectation of winning, so I was really happy,” he said this spring, showing visitors a few of his plants he has stashed behind the green house at SBS in Vineyard Haven, where he works. This year he plans to expand his taioba production 10-fold to 50 plants. (And the Ag Fair will have categories for maxixe and jiló as well as taioba this year.)

Standing amidst his new taioba plants, Ademar smiles as the late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds, talking about his next taioba crop. He says growing taioba on the Island “makes it more of a home for me here.