Cooking for the party | On the table
The further you back into the Portuguese Hall Association, pass the rows of young and old seated at long tables covered in red gingham linens, plus the aroma of meat, onions, peppercorns and allspice. is strong. And there, behind the divider is its source: a team of volunteer cooks and waiters serving Portuguese sopas do EspÃrito Santo and simmered alcatra.
On Sunday October 10, after a morning Catholic Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, in honor of the day when the Virgin Mary would have appeared before three children in Portugal, the Portuguese Association of the Hall of the Valley of the Eel River has fed some 100 people after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The organizers felt ready to try again with a team of vaccinated volunteers, a spacious hall, open doors and an event smaller than the all-day Pentecostal Sunday party. But even for this little party, the cooking started the day before.
“Years ago, it was women”, explains StÃ©phanie Koch, president of the association, “but now we have men who cook traditional meat and sopas.” As the older generation of cooks died, she said, a handful of men rallied to carry on the tradition and cook the recipes that had been passed down.
One of those men is Steve Lorenzo, 72, a retired dairy technician who was recruited by a cousin about 25 years ago. “He said, ‘Well, you know you can never stop – you sign up, you have to do it for life,'” Lorenzo recalls with a faint hissing laugh. âThere has always been a kitchen by Lorenzo, so I said, ‘Yeah’. He had started early, cutting vegetables for his grandmother for community celebrations. “My avÃ³ was cooking … and when I was a kid I would come all the time.”
This is how he learned to prepare sopas do EspÃrito Santo, a regional cabbage soup from the Azores islands, made with bacon and bone, mint and spices, and served on stale bread. Outside this region, to which many Portuguese in the Eel River Valley trace their lineage, “Few people have heard of it and less than those have tasted it.”
After hours of cooking, the bones, bacon and spices gave the broth a tea brown color. Once the broth is strained, they add cabbage and mint quarters. This bundle uses mint from a volunteer garden.
“A Portuguese cook always has mint in the garden,” says Trish Lorenzo, Steve’s wife. She scoops up the soft mint stems that did their job and uses a small knife to cut the pits off the cabbage wedges so that the now tender leaves separate into the aromatic broth. The thick slices of French bread floating on top soaked up the soup until it almost melted. Her apron, covered with blue and white hydrangeas, remains incredibly intact.
Lorenzo, who bought land in the Azores, returns from trips there with hard-to-find ingredients like dried pimenta doce, a powdered red pepper, as well as adjustments to the recipe. âWe can’t duplicate the way they cook there,â he says, noting that everything from the clay pots and wood-fired ovens to the meat they use alters the flavor. And not everyone agrees on the best way to cook traditional dishes, which are sometimes made differently, depending on which side of the island you are on. âThey’re making a fool of themselves, ‘Oh, these guys over there, they don’t know what they’re doing,’â he laughs. “The older people who want to do this, it’s about keeping the tradition. The younger people just aren’t interested in this, so it’s more difficult to get people to learn or come.”
Kevin Oliveira’s ponytail hangs from the back of a green cap and swings across his back as he moves a pot of soup towards the passage. He started helping in the lobby kitchen 11 years ago. “They told me it was a life sentence and I am here and I love to do it. Preserving our traditions.” This is also how he learned to cook sopas and alcatra, which requires cooking decomposed chunks of beef from a chuck for about eight hours in spices and wine. The final product gives easily under a spoon, fragrant and seasoned. âYesterday we started at 9:30 am and I turned off the stoves at 7:15 am,â he says. On Sunday, the cooks were back at 8:30 a.m. with plans to clean and tidy up until at least 4 p.m.
“It’s the little one,” he says, wiping his forehead once the food is served. Today’s meal only took six casseroles of meat – about 120 pounds – instead of the 36 casseroles they usually cook for Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter. For this, they cook all night and serve two seats. Cooking sopas and alcatra at home just isn’t the same, says Oliveira. “You only get this flavor by cooking this amount.”
After two years without such a flow, Steve Lorenzo is happy to be back in the kitchen, although he’s not sure how many people would show up in the event of a pandemic. “A lot of people were worried about it,” he says, “like my 90-year-old aunt isn’t coming, but my 92 and 94-year-old aunts are.”
At the prep table, a younger pair, Steve’s nephew, Matthew Lorenzo and Nicholas Fisk, lift the meat from the pots of cooking liquid and cut it into pieces for serving. Matthew was not, he informs us with a wry smile, told us about the lifetime date before committing.
The last of the sliced ââPortuguese sweet breads is carried to tables to be smeared with butter and eaten with the meat and soup, followed by cups of vanilla ice cream. Steve Lorenzo pauses, leaning against the paneled wall, when a woman walks up to wish him a happy birthday. The day before, he had spent his 72nd birthday squatting in front of pots of bubbling soup and beef.
âWhen you get older than dirt, it doesn’t matter,â Trish jokes, earning a smile from her husband.
Oliveira waves to Steve. “As long as he’s standing he’ll be here.”
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she / she) is the Arts and Articles Editor-in-Chief of the Journal. Contact her at 442-1400, ext. 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.