Reading And Eating Clarice Lispector’s Story “As Águas Do Mundo.”

There it is, the sea, the most unintelligible of non-human existences.  And here is the woman, standing on the beach, the most unintelligible of living beings.  As a human being she once posed a question about herself, becoming the most unintelligible of living beings. She and the sea.  (401)

The moment of consciousness, of self-awareness Clarice Lispector pairs with the unfathomable depths of the ocean–on its surface and below.  Depths of the mind, bewildering explanations of the brain, primordial beginnings of life, and when I read those words, and think of water, think of human beings standing on the Ipanema shore and swimming out into the blue, I think of gumbo, I think of moqueca.

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Soups like the oceans touch shores, unite countries from Indonesia to Greece, Turkey to Colombia, and of course, from New Orleans to Bahia.  This is the cuisine of making do, of surviving, of mixing water and fire, the fruit of land, sea and sky like an alchemist in a laboratory.  Gumbo combines the ingredients and culinary practices of the Gulf Coast, West African shores, and Europe in a variety of chicken, crab, greens, shrimp and turkey dishes.  Moqueca combines Brazilian Amerindians, Portuguese, and West Africans brought over as slaves in a rich stew combining palm oil, count milk, seafood and a range of vegetables.  I decide it’s time to bring the two water-based culinary gems together–dishes that define their culture and region through recipes of the oppressed, of the resilient.  First off, as always, the stock.  Onion, head and tail and bones of a namorado, shrimp heads and shells, pig hocks, cilantro, basil, red and yellow and green pepper, roasted chicken bones and celery stalks–all bubbling and shimmering for several days.

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It is six in the morning.  There is only a free dog hesitating on the beach, a black dog.  Why is a dog so free?  Because it is the living mystery that doesn’t wonder about itself.  The woman hesitates because she’s about to go in.  (401)

To be aware of what we eat, past the degree of collecting and storing which many creatures on this planet do, past the degree of breaking open, of luring out into the open, of taking long hours even days to acquire nourishment we share with our fellow animals, to the state of considering what to put in the basket, which recipe will best serve the produce, a flair of inspiration in the kitchen and adding what has not been added before, researching foodways and cooking practices, reading cookbooks, watching chefs sit, curse and drink on a glowing screen in the dark–this awareness, this gift of consciousness is what I share with Clarice Lispector as I melt half a stick of butter in a pan, add flour and slowly wait and stir for it to darken as her beach goer walks into “the vastness of the sea.”

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Combining gumbo and moqueca emphasizes shared ingredients in each recipe.  Both call for onion, green pepper, garlic, seafood, a hot pepper sauce, and are served with rice.  Gumbo offers distinctions with okra, celery, sausage, chicken, and roux.  Moqueca offers limes, tomatoes, palm oil, coconut milk, and malagueta peppers.  After the roux has found that darkening chocolate color I add a generous splash of palm oil followed by an entire onion diced, which I let bubble and squeak until translucent and then add okra cut into thick rounds.  I let this combination percolate for awhile then proceed to add celery, green and yellow and red pepper, tomatoes and garlic.  Then I add slices of linguiça, the sausage of choice in Portugal and Brazil.  Stir and tumble.

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She goes in.  The salt water is cold enough to make her legs shiver in a ritual.  But an inevitable joy–joy is an inevitability–has already seized her, though smiling doesn’t even occur to her.  On the contrary, she is very serious.  (402)

Finally, waters meet waters, the fish, pig and chicken stock meets a creole/bahian stew. Spill and swirl, tides and tumbles, islands of peppers, okra and celery, a vegetable archipelago amidst a golden sea.

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With cupped hands she does what she’s always done in the sea, and with the pride of people who never explain even to themselves: with cupped hands filled with water, she drinks in great, good gulps. (403)

And then the final two ingredients.  I pour in shrimp fresh from the market and allow to turn from a grey slightly pink color to a bright vermelho.  In goes one and a half bottles of coconut milk.  The ocean froths, turns into lemons, fire, saffron, lava pouring down the side of a volcano, the red-orange hair of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife.  After few minutes of change and change, it’s time to serve.

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And now she steps onto the sand.  She knows she is glistening with water, and salt and sun. Even if she forgets a few minutes from now, she can never lose all this.  And she knows in some obscure way that her streaming hair is that of a castaway.  Because she knows–she knows she has created a danger.  A danger as ancient as the human being. (403)

I place a mound of rice in the middle of the plate then top with scoops of linguiça and shrimp, onion and okra, red pepper and tomato, then ladle the rich broth over all, creating a lake surrounding a continent of food the way the ancient Greeks imagined the ocean circled the earth.  On one side, I place spinach greens sautéed in olive oil with garlic.  A world has been created and at the source of it all, water sloshes from side to side as Thales of Miletus thought as he looked into the Mediterranean and saw nourishment, change and yet always the same principle, the same substance–soup. Listen to Marisa Monte sing “Água Também é Mar.”  Bon Appétit!

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