Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Uncle Meat

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My dad turned 58 recently, so I bought him what every good Portuguese man wants for his birthday: a big tank that smokes meat. He got it just in time for the Fourth of July long weekend, right in the dog days of barbecue season. No, I’m not up for adoption.

Conveniently enough, this device is called “The Smoker.” It looks like a giant fire extinguisher on stilts. You put the meat inside, light some charcoal and wood, add a pan of water for steam and put in any kind of meat. In a few hours, you have smoked meat. It can make pork ribs, beef steaks, roasts, hams, chickens, turkeys, lamb, lobsters, venison, elk, beefalo—you name it.

As far as we know, it does not make vegetables.

You could try, I guess.

But what good Portuguese man would? Let’s not kid ourselves. The Portuguese aren’t known for their large vegetarian population. We’re just known for our large population, if you catch my drift.

We are the culture that invented the steak with the fried egg and unpitted olive on top, with french fries and rice on the side. We eat chourico and eggs for breakfast, chourico and chips for lunch, and chicken stuffed with chourico for dinner. On the beach, we find giant barnacles lying on the shore, use our pocketknives to pry out the creatures inside, and eat them raw.

But Azorean-Americans aren’t vegetable eaters, despite where we came from. When my parents grew up in the Azores, they were poor farmers, so their diet consisted mainly of fruit, vegetables and beans. That’s the case with many other Portuguese families, also. My family had cows, but they weren’t for making shish kebabs with. If you cut the cows into little pieces and sautéed them with Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms, you didn’t have any milk—which was bad news, as the nearest Cumberland Farms was at least 2,500 miles away.

I once asked my mom how often they had meat in the Azores. “About three times a year,” she said. “On the big holidays. We couldn’t afford it.”

My parents moved to America, found jobs and realized they could afford meat more than three times a year. By the time I came along, our meals consisted of a meat dish, some other meat dish, and our choice of beverages. Sometimes, we did have beans—and on those days I ate a sandwich with leftover steak. Our salads were usually small bowls of sliced cucumbers, salted for flavor.

In the summer, my dad fired up the barbecue whenever the sun was bright enough to cast shadows. On special days, we went to Portuguese restaurants like O’Gils, where we ate—yes—more steak or pork chops. Try this out some day: walk into a Portuguese restaurant and ask for a plate of vegetables and beans with fruit for dessert.

I loved eating Portuguese-style. A sirloin tastes better than a radish any day of the week. On the other hand, I never saw a zucchini until I was 21 years old. My wife, who is not Portuguese, brought a zucchini home one day, and I thought it was some new variation of cucumber. That can’t be healthy.

Because of my wife’s influence, I eat zucchini regularly now, but I know many Portuguese people who don’t eat any vegetables at all, except for the hot peppers that come in a grinder. I know some Portuguese people who go to the grocery store and buy 25 steaks at a time — that’s right, 25 steaks. Not coincidentally, Fall River’s rate of diabetes and heart disease is much higher than other cities in our area.

My mom recently suggested why Portuguese-American people are known for eating meat so often.

“I think it’s because we were all deprived for so long,” mom said. She told this to my wife and I over an enormous platter of ribs and steaks.

In the Azores, mom said, people were poor but they had all the fresh produce they could want. They ate more natural foods, and in greater moderation.

Over here, since they make more money, they buy the good food, the food they couldn’t have. They make every day a holiday, and they feel the hangover for years to come with higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

My dad filled our wine glasses — he says that if drinking a glass of wine every day is healthy, then drinking three should be fantastic. He mentioned The Smoker to me.

“I’m gonna make a pork loin in there,” he said with a grin, holding his hands apart to indicate a slab of meat two and a half feet long.

I began to wonder if buying him The Smoker was such a hot idea. He’s in the prime heart attack years, and he’s had some nasty health issues in the recent past. I imagined him being wheeled to the operating room, helpless, doctors whacking his chest to get his heart pumping again. I imagined him undergoing hours of surgery to remove much of a smoked pork loin lodged in his chest. I imagined him afterward, frail and gray, condemned by doctors to eat porridge and lukewarm chicken broth for the rest of his life.

So I came up with a plan: my dad can have some fun with The Smoker for the summer. But just so there are no surprises, he’s getting a Salad Shooter for Christmas.

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