What started as a benign holiday tradition involving a few high school girl friends has now turned into more of a deranged personal obsession. For every one of the past 15 years, with the exception of the fall I lived in Spain, I’ve hosted a “Christmas” cookie making and decorating party—pretty much anything you (or a perverse college kid) can think of, I’ve seen it in cookie form. The tradition might have died peacefully in my freshman college dorm room that first December away from home, but I had already realized that in college, there are two simple means through which to make new friends: alcohol or food. Much to my grandmother’s confusion (“but what do you do at parties?”), I chose the latter.
And so it was one chilly Chicago day, that I found myself hurrying down a smoke-filled stairwell with a few hundred of my suddenly not-so-biggest fans. Whose idea was it anyway to put thick odor-blocking double doors between the kitchen where I was throwing cookies in the oven and the suite where people were decorating them? Later college cookie parties were more successful, which is to say, I don’t remember setting off any more fire alarms. After I graduated, it was only logical to bring the cookie-making to my new math teaching job at a boarding school, especially in my official capacity as faculty advisor to the new “cultural cuisine club” (college counseling took issue with “baking club” as an extracurricular activity). Now, five years of 30+ person, grad school cookie parties later, I knew that, even if my friends would just be humoring the crazy gringa, the tradition had to be brought to Sao Paulo.
This proved to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. Thanks to a little help from
the internet, the challenge was not in the sugar or gingerbread dough itself; the only slightly unusual ingredients required were molasses and cloves, and I found molasses at Pão de Açucar and skipped the cloves because, well, I forgot to look for them. Powdered sugar is readily available, and it wasn’t difficult to find decorative sugars or sprinkles. Although sprinkles are sold at Pão de Açucar and bigger grocery stores, I bought them at a party store on Rua Augusta because it had lured me in with its muffin and bread pans. Sadly, I was rudely awakened from my double chocolate banana bread reverie by the realization that I would have exactly 3 days left in Sao Paulo to enjoy my new bread pans (next time, I’m bringing my own!) so I bought some pretty colored sugars as a consolation purchase.
I woke up yesterday morning, ready to accomplish my last round of errands: pick up a paycheck at the Callan school, cash it at the bank, make one last souvenir-run at Shopping Vila Olimpia, and finally, rush to the luggage store to buy a vessel capable of transporting it all. However, my to-the minute itinerary was thwarted when I realized upon arriving at the Vila Madalena metro that I had forgotten my passport, which I needed both for entry into the Callan school building as well as cashing my paychecks at the bank. Wearily, I slogged back uphill to the apartment, slowly perceiving that I had an even bigger problem; it was suddenly becoming very difficult to stand upright, never mind walk without feeling like my stomach was seizing up.
When I finally arrived back at the apartment I collapsed onto my bed, unable to move. I tried to sleep it off, but every few minutes, I felt a deep, slashing pang, like my kidneys were trying to eject my stomach through my ribcage. All I could think as I lay there was, why, after managing to stay healthy over three months of inconsistent eating and sleeping habits, did I have to get food poisoning the day of my flight (not to mention, what the heck did I eat?)?! Clearly I wasn’t meant to leave the country. I focused on revising and prioritizing my previous plan. Maybe I should just forget about the money. The most important thing was to be well enough to make my flight later that night.
Still, miser that I am, I really wanted to leave the country with all the money I had earned running around town in circles at the cost of my own health. I will spare you the gory details of the interim period, but feeling a bit better and knowing the banks close at 4, I finally forced myself out of bed around 2:30 when Samantha very kindly brought me a carry-on to use and some medicine. I also took a shower, and, for the first time, the water cut out at the end. Maybe it was time to go home after all?
Anytime you move to a new country, it is totally normal to miss not only your friends but also certain creature comforts of your home country. As much as I enjoyed the food in Seville, when I was returning home, all I wanted was to eat a pound of peanut butter and something not fried or sautéed in olive oil. This time around has felt a little different, however. Perhaps this is because I had mentally prepared for everything to be really different, so when I am successfully able to find something, I am pleasantly surprised, but I think it has more to do with the difference in place and time period. Brazil is extremely interested in American culture and, as such, many “American” products are available here, although sometimes they are produced by Brazilian companies. In addition, a lot can change in ten years; for better or for worse, products that were once confined to their country of origin, are now ubiquitous, especially in major international cities such as Sao Paulo. I say this because on the one hand, it takes away some of the charm of bringing back something unique for a loved one, but on the other, it makes transitioning into a new language and culture a little bit easier.
The biggest difference for me however, has been being able to cook for myself here. Not that I don’t want to learn Brazilian dishes (and I’m excited because Maisa told me she would teach me how to make a simple savory pie-type thing I can try to replicate at home over Christmas. Durhamites everywhere, beware!), but as an alternative to grabbing a tasty, but ultimately unsatisfying “salgadinho” from a padoca every day, it has been a huge relief to do more cooking over the past few weeks. It took me a little bit of time to get started (ok, like 6 weeks!), but I was investing this time in learning what ingredients/foods are readily available, the Portuguese translations for certain spices, where to go for certain less-common ingredients and what I can reasonably make without my extensive arsenal of kitchen appliances. This led me to a lot of fun and interesting blogs online, and I plan to devote more blog posts just to cooking and grocery shopping in Sao Paulo in the hopes that it will be interesting and maybe even help another clueless soul. For today though, here are the top five foods that have been the most challenging to find or go without in Sao Paulo.