04 February 2013

Brazilian Potlatch

As soon as I was old enough, my grandparents sent me a $5 check for my birthday. Later that year my mother sent a $5 check to my grandmother for her birthday. A few months later another check appeared in the mail, this time for one of my sisters, in the amount of $5. Then a $5 check was sent to my grandfather, and this went on, year in, year out. This gifting and re-gifting of $5 was my family's amusing interpretation of the custom of potlatch. First practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the United States, potlatch is more than gift-giving. It is a deliberate redistribution of resources, either through money, foods or other material things. That my family was redistributing the same resource was merely our little joke.

Here in Brazil my husband, Mark, and I have gotten deeply involved in a Brazilian version of potlatch that is as intense as it is over-the-top. Oh, it started out innocently enough, in the tradition of the don't-go-anywhere-empty-handed mind set. Invited for dinner? Bottle of wine. Lunch? Maybe flowers, or a dessert from the bakery. But slowly we got sucked into a livelier, more inventive potlatch which, at least in our circle, centers around the redistribution of foodstuffs, whether from the garden, the stove or the still.

The kitchen garden, or horta, potlatch is our most active exchange. Whether we've invited people for a meal or a friend just drops by, we have been on the receiving end of large bags of homegrown kale, of bananas and avocados picked right off their trees, and of baskets of fruits I'd once never heard of, but which now I covet: acerola and pitanga. We have returned the favors with red and green peppers, lettuces, cherry tomatoes, beets and carrots, all picked from our own garden. And we have melon ripening as I write. Already some people are eyeing them for future exchanges.

All from backyard stills

We also have developed an interesting alcoholic beverage potlatch, which includes moonshine as well as the store-bought variety. We have happily accepted all kinds of interesting homemade cachaças, each more gut-burning than the other. And we hold up our side with honor, bringing bottles of my own homemade limoncello, a digestif that I love, but which is not readily available here. I make it in large batches, so there are always extra bottles to give away. But our booze potlatch isn't all mountain rye from pappy's little still. The offerings have ranged from bottles of lovely red wines to cartons of sparkling wines, from 12-year-old Scotch to Piper Heidsieck. My all-time favorite is the 1.75-liter bottle of rosé that was brought — along with many, many other bottles that day —  by friends we had invited for a weekend of high-end gluttony. I don't know what to do with the empty bottle, but I can't bring myself to recycle it just yet.

As for prepared foods, well, we seem to have entered another plane beyond the homemade cakes and cookies of my youth. Here the exchange revolves more around homemade jams and jellies, and even chutneys and crystallized ginger. The winner in this potlatch category, though, is our cleaning lady, Rosângela. Over the years she has taken it upon herself to make sure Mark and I taste all the Brazilian dishes she feels we should know, and she makes sure that what she brings is engordante (fattening), since we're too thin for her taste. And every year around Christmas she brings us rabanada, similar to but not quite French toast. Every year around the June holidays known here as the festas juninas she brings us canjica, similar to but not quite rice pudding (it uses hominy instead of rice). Her garden is enormous and her generosity is boundless. She comes on Tuesdays and Fridays . . . wonder what she'll bring tomorrow.


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