The Oxymoron of American Pizza in Brazil

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Brazilians have a funny idea of what is American. It’s a cross between what they see on TV and what they think is cool (which may or may not have anything to do with actual American customs. 

brazilian pizza To point, behold the “American Pizza” we enjoyed last night: sausage (check), cheese (check), sauce (check), ham (check), and palm hearts and egg (BZZZ! NOT actually American AT ALL). 

Not only are the ingredients not traditionally American, they would send your ordinary Meat n’ Potatoes American running in the opposite direction:”Palm hearts? I don’t know. Sounds kind weird…Eggs! On pizza?? What in the Sam Hill…Get me outta here!”

If I had my way, I’d add Brazilian pizza to that list of 100 Brazilian foods to try. It’s pretty tasty Brazilians like pizza a lot and have made it their own. Thin crust, less sauce (this irritates me–what did tomatoes ever do to you Brazil?), and regular appearances of corn, green olives, chicken, cream cheese, and palm hearts. 

Pizza is served with packets of mayo, ketchup (to compensate for the lack of sauce, ftw), and olive oil. Proper etiquette is to eat it with a fork and knife. No New York-style folding and jamming, thankyouverymuch. Brazilians are at a loss of what to do if the pizza is served before the utensils (me: you’re effing kidding right? You snooze, you lose…Slide that puppy over here!) In sum, Brazilian pizza is definitely worth trying, and definitely NOT anything like an American pizza.

Of course there’s nothing like the tastes of home. One of my delights at the farm is that we’ve repaired our wood-fired oven. American pizza (extra sauce and cheese, please) is a regular treat. Folding encouraged. 

Zika Madness

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I get a lot of questions from people in the States about how people here in Brazil are dealing with all the Zika craziness. Americans are absolutely freaking out about the problem. And Brazilians? My answer always is: “They shrug.”

It’s true. Ask any average Brazilian their opinion about Zika, and they’ll lift their shoulders and sigh. Because it’s transmitted by the same bug that transmits dengue and they’ve been battling dengue for DECADES with little success. Because it’s a symptom of a broken health system. Because it’s got Brazil in the international spotlight, and it’s not flattering and they’re embarrassed.

Brazilians just don’t react much to the issue. I honestly have had more conversations about Zika with Americans (who have just had their first microencephaly case just recently) than with Brazilians (who have had hundreds, if not thousands of cases). This is not to say it’s not a problem. Even here in our little town in Minas Gerais, dengue is a problem. My mother-in-law was treated for it, as was a co-worker. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. And if dengue is here, then Zika could be and also Chikungunya.

Some of this is just the Brazilian toujours gai attitude about life. Always cheerful, nothing’s ever a huge problem, smile and give ’em a thumbs up even when the world is about crash down around your ears.

Some of it is the tragedy of the commons–because the best way to stop the transmission of Zika and dengue is to eliminate all the places the mosquitos can breed which means everyone cleaning up all that trash that Brazilians have been tossing out their windows for ages (the mosquitos can breed in pools of water as small as a soda bottle cap) and screening in houses that just were never built to be airtight. A friend of mine gave us a honorable mention in an article about the problem. We’re the only house in town with window screens, and that’s because I imported kits from Home Depot in the States (thanks mom!). Solving the transmission is a massive public health undertaking and depends on each person doing their part. Which brings us back to part #1 of the problem–convincing the public that there’s a crisis that requires individual action. Which generally is tough to get Brazilians to do.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this public health campaign poster yesterday in the neighboring town of Novo Cruzeiro. Translation: “Free Novo Cruziero from the Chikungunya and Zika viruses–How many people will have to die for you to CLEAN UP YOUR YARD?”

Because DAMN.

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“How many people have to die for you to clean up your yard?”

Crazy Kitchen Chickens

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Our outdoor kitchen is infested with crazy chickens. Crazy or just incredibly dumb, but then dumb just comes with chicken territory. These two ladies take the cake, though.

It all started normally enough, with them selecting roosting spots within the kitchen. Ever seen it happen? It’s cute. Like newlyweds apartment hunting, the rooster leads the hens around showing them various locations. The ladies inspect the nest, toss the hay around, open all the cupboards, and have final say. We have one rooster who’s both a lady’s man and lazy, and he keeps trying to settle two girlfriends in the same suite. Needless to say, it never works out well.

These two roosting spots were not the wisest–on top of the (round) oven, and next to the wood-fired stove. The oven-top hen kept knocking her own eggs out of the nest every time she shifted until she had lost every last one. The stove-top hen kept losing her eggs to our maurading dogs (we debating lacing an egg with hot pepper to teach them a lesson, but that’s a story for another time). For those who haven’t raised chickens, they have this strange habit of shouting at the top of their lungs every time they lay an egg. Proud, I guess. I wonder how the species ever survived. Maybe we bred them to do this? Anyhow, she’d set up squawking and the dogs would come running every time for an afternoon snack. You’re supposed to leave one egg in the nest so that the chicken doesn’t forget where her nest is (see? Not smart, in general, chickens.), but after a few times of this I started racing the dogs to the nest and cleaning it out each time. And nonetheless–despite the fact that all the previous eggs had strangely disappeared moments after she laid it–every afternoon she’d go back to the same spot and lay yet another egg.

Which leads us to our current situation. Ms. Oven-Top has been roosting there for more than a month. We’ve tried shooing her away multiple times. One day I tried more than eight times in a row and finally gave up when I lost count. Mr. Crônicas has piled firewood on top of the oven in hopes of deterring her. Every time we bake something she squats in a crouch to keep her butt off the warm floor and pants with the heat. I’ll give her this: what she’s missing in smarts, she makes up for in dedication.

Ms. Stove-Top was steadfastly brooding on her one egg. She got up for breakfast yesterday and I think a dog finally got it. Her nest was empty and she was running about squawking bloody murder. I cleaned the area and moved the buckets we had placed around her nest to protect her from the dogs. Not being able to find her nest, she insistently settled into one of the buckets and has not budged since.

We’re at a loss what to do. There isn’t a single egg between the two of them, but they both seem determined to stay there until something hatches. Anyone who has experience with chickens have any advice?IMG_5468

Happy Easter everyone. May your eggs and chicks be plentiful, and may your mother hens be sane.

Veggies in a Box

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Our daughter fell in love with a plastic toy kitchen the last time we were home in the States. I decided that if I could find one at a decent price, it would be her big Christmas gift this year.

I promptly fired off a letter to Santa with our request. I got a kind reply from one of his elves that “due to regional constraints” Santa was unable to deliver large items to Brazil. Had I considered an online vendor? True. Christmas trees are scarce. There’s a proper shortage of hearths and chimneys–Brazilian children receive gifts in their shoes! So I guess delivery options are limited. If it doesn’t fit in your shoes, Santa’s not shipping.

Anyhow, armed with that kindly advice I ventured into the world of Brazilian online shopping. Amazingly, I found one and it was even at a decent price with gender-neutral colors! Merry Christmas!

And on Christmas morning I set it up under the tree and promptly snapped a photo because we all know that this is the last time we’ll ever see all those small pieces in the same place ever again…

A few thoughts occurred to me as I staged my daughter’s first culinary set:

  1. Internet shopping is becoming a Thing(TM) in Brazil. Everyone wants First World products, and yet it’s incredibly hard to find them in your local stores OR they’re ridiculously overpriced. Online is the only place way to go, unless you’re so rich that you don’t need to care. In our rural town, we all shop online.
  2. Shipping is exorbitant. I always gasp a little at shipping times and prices here. Oh, how I miss Amazon.com’s free five-day shipping! That being said, I paid extra for fast shipping and it arrived on time before Christmas. So it ain’t all bad.
  3. Be prepared for prices to be truly cray-crazy. So check, and double-check. Online prices are regularly different from store prices. Sales often mean that they just marked it up two days ago, only to then “mark it down” come the sale week. This kitchen was affordable, even with the expedited shipping. But a kit of plastic vegetables to go with the kitchen? More than I spent on the stove itself. (Here kid, I made you some cardboard broccoli instead! Isn’t mommy creative?)
  4. Speaking of vegetables–SALAD in a BOX–who ever heard of such a thing? Apparently whoever made this kitchen has. And while I’m on the topic–who the heck OK’d the decisions on these foods? Salad in a box, plastic hotdogs, plastic eggs, a plastic fish, a box of cream, pepper, and ketchup, those are our ingredients for Toddler Dinner. My mind boggles. (by the way, the salad and cream boxes are no more because: toddlers; they lasted a day)
  5. Expect some pretty crazy translations. English is chic in Brazil, but no one can really speak it. Can someone tell me what this menu is supposed to say? Shares? Room time??
  6.  Truth in advertising is over-rated. The box shows what must be the world’s smallest three-year old playing with the kitchen. The spatula is huge in her hand, and the kitchen comes up to almost the top of her head. Now, truth be told, this kitchen doesn’t even measure up to my TWO-year old’s SHOULDER. So, clearly there’s been some creative photo editing.

But, all in all, my daughter and her friends are thrilled with her new luxury cooking duds. Our play area is the place to be these days for the under-five set.

And my daughter would like you to know that you’re welcome to stop by for some plastic hotdogs, cardboard broccoli, and salad in a box anytime.

We’ll keep the kettle on.

100 Brazilian Dishes: Blender Cake

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Blender Cake in the makingI had no idea what they were talking about when I first read the list of 100 Brazilian Dishes. Blender cake?

I learned later that most homemakers here make cake by throwing all the ingredients in the blender then pouring it into a cake pan. One more use for that trusty kitchen tool–juices, seasonings, and now CAKE. Seriously, I can’t imagine a Brazilian surviving without one.

Clearly, this was a merit badge that this Honorary Brazilian-in-training needed to learn. I made a mental note to find a recipe sometime.

When we had an overabundance of cream from our milk, someone told me that you could use spoiled cream to make delicious, moist cakes.

I googled it, and voila–a blender cake recipe! If you’re curious, here it is:

1 xícara de nata (1 cup of cream)

  • 4 ovos (4 eggs)
  • 1 xícara de maizena (1 cup cornstarch–I’ve learned that this should be sifted into the batter to avoid white clumps in your cake)
  • 2 xícaras de farinha de trigo (2 cups flour)
  • 1 xícara de leite (1 cup milk)
  • 2 xícaras de açúcar (2 cups sugar)
  • 1 colher (sopa) de fermento em pó royal (1TBSP baking powder)
  1. Bata todos os ingredientes na batedeira, menos o fermento, até a massa ficar bem clarinha (mix the ingredients in the mixer without the baking powder until very smooth)
  2. Misture o fermento, sem bate (mix in the baking powder, without beating)
  3. Coloque para assar em uma forma retangular por uns 40 minutos aproximadamente. (put in a square baking pan for approximately 40 minutes. Typical of most Brazilian recipes, it didn’t specify oven heat, pan size or exact cooking time. ON or OFF until done, I guess.)

The results were fantastic, and it’s become a regular offering in our house. High, moist, dense and vanilla-flavored (despite not having any vanilla added); almost like a pound cake.

Blender Cake

My next challenge is to master baking it in our outdoor wood fire summer oven. I mean, if you want an Honorary Brazilian merit badge, you might as well work for it. First attempt was singed (wood fire ovens also seem to only do ON or OFF) but tasty.

Stay tuned, fellow foodies!

(oh!–and my 100 Brazilian Dishes tally? 51 down, 49 to go!)

Bucket Brigade

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IMG_4501We have endless water at the farm. Most of the time. It’s a true luxury. It runs day and night, and we do our best to route it to the most useful places so that its abundance isn’t wasted. It’s easy to be casual about it, because if it isn’t used it just means that a cistern somewhere is overflowing.

We have hoards of water. Until once a year–in September and October–when we don’t.

We are usually one of the last farms to dry up. Many of our friends reported dry wells long before our stream slowed to a trickle. The top of the farm usually still has a few springs that keep going. But our house? Dry as a bone as of a few weeks ago.

I’ve learned something new about myself. I can cross continents, do international travel with a toddler, learn a new language, navigate foreign bureaucracies and strange cities, learn a new culture and a variety of other adventures without batting an eye. But, by gods, there had better be running water at the end of it all.

Our water ran out, and we gamely soldiered on for a few days. We conserved. We used water that we brought by the gallon from town (which also is starting to have shortages and rations in the afternoon). We talked to the municipality about bringing their water truck to refill our cistern and they turned us down–their water is low enough, they said, that they needed to save it for city and couldn’t justify trips to the rural zones as they had in the past.

And somewhere in there I might have had a small breakdown. I grew up in a rural zone with a shallow dug well that sometimes ran dry. I know how to conserve–military showers, reusing your greywater, flushing only when necessary, the whole lot. But juggle a house, a toddler, and a full-time job all with no running water at all? There might have been tears shed and strong words spoken about finding another wife because this one wasn’t up the challenge.

I’m not naive. There are many women in Brazil who do this. The entire Northeast region lacks water for months on end. People walk miles for a few buckets. The entire city of Sao Paolo was on water rationing, with running water only on alternating days. I wasn’t alone in my struggle. I didn’t even have it that bad. But I had discovered a line in my series of adventures that I couldn’t cross. I need water.

Thankfully, Mr. Crônicas decided I was worth keeping, and showed up the next day with the truck from work and two 500L barrels in the back. It took three trips to the top of the farm and back. Over an hour to fill the tanks, 20 minutes to pump them into our cistern. What a man will do for love. And a hot shower.

We decided to empty the cistern before filling it. The last dregs of our water supply had not been pretty, and better to rinse the cistern before putting in the new, fresh well water from the top of the farm. On a normal day, we’d just dump the water out and let it run willy-nilly wherever. But things were dying out there. So while Mr. Crônicas was on Water Trip #1, I formed a bucket brigade. I set buckets and watering cans under all the main faucets, and ran outside with one while the next filled. With the glaring, Brazilian noonday sun on my shoulders I watered fruit trees, and grass transplants, garden seedlings, and yard flowers. I sought every leaf of our hard work, and poured some life on it.

It’s amazing the difference water makes. Plants literally get instantly greener. You can see them come alive again. You can see them sigh and stretch their leaves out. Bucket after bucket. The air around the farmhouse grew moist. The breeze became cool again.

I was pouring out the last bucket as Mr. Crônicas pulled up.  He linked up the pump, and water began to fall into the cistern. Water falling has never sounded so good.

Water falling has never sounded so good.

Water falling has never sounded so good.

And this is what we have done every weekend since then. Life is almost normal again. We fill the cistern, and conserve during the week. My bucket brigade continues, watering the garden every morning and the yard every afternoon with our greywater from laundry and dishwashing.

I am thankful for our luxury. We have a truck to bring water. An old pump to put it into the cistern. A water source that is not dry yet. We are rich.

Tinderbox

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Wildfire across the valley

It was my first day in Brazil after the long nighttime bus ride back to our interior town. It had been a month since I had stepped on Brazilian soil. I opened the living room door and peer out into the yard. The light burned my eyes. Was the Brazilian sun always this bright?

My eyes itched. I rubbed them. There was a haze in the air. I couldn’t see clearly to the other side of the valley. It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t my eyes, weakened by northern climates, it was the air itself. Every so often a wisp of cinders wafted by, lingering confetti from some strange, morbid party.

The dry season had come again, and the fires with it.

Fire is an essential tool. Used in August, it beats back the jungle, destroying hard to cure brambles that would otherwise have to be treated with pesticides. It clears land quickly and renews it for new growth. We use it, as most farmers around here do.

And then there are the fools who set fires in late September and early October, when the grass and trees are parched, the land starved for moisture, when a single spark or errant cigarette can start a blaze that will last for days.

When we first arrived in Brazil the hills of Belo Horizonte were ablaze, wildfires dotting the mountaintops, sliding across ranges, clouds billowing towards our plane. It was awe-inspiring to see an arial view of the conflagration. It was unforgettable.

“They burned the top of the farm.” My husband updated me while I was traveling, “It’s been burning for two days.” My mind saw an arial view of our home, fires sweeping across its crest. My heart sank into my stomach.

Who set the fire? We don’t know. Was it a dirtbiker’s cigarette? Or a vandal? In either case, the callousness of the act leaves me gasping. Acres were burnt. A natural spring that watered four families depends on the green in that section of the valley. We wouldn’t know until later that year if the wandering band of monkeys that habit that intentionally wild part of the farm fled in time.

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After my return the top of the farm caught fire again, burning down even further into the valley. It burned for days, dying down, flaring up. My husband and brother-in-law did battle with machetes, scythes, and hoes, clearing firebreaks wherever possible to slow its growth. They returned each day blackened and defeated.

At night we eyed the oncoming fires warily through the darkness, marking the glow on the landscape, mentally counting the pastures consumed versus the tally of cattle to graze. Those were the fields that were supposed to get us through the winter.

Before and after the fires

A week later smoke sprouted again at the other end of the valley, away from the fires. I quickly deposited my daughter in my sister-in-law’s care, and took off in long strides down our dirt road to get a better look. The last thing we needed was to lose the other pastures to a new blaze, as threadbare as those were.

Two blazes. One was clearly intentional on a neighbor’s property, a pile of burning brush with nothing near it visible on the other wall of the valley. I sighed a breath of relief and continued walking to the gate. Across the road in the neighbor’s banana orchard, close to the margin of the road, another blaze raged. Banana palm leaves curled and waved in the heat.

I pondered whether it was planned or accidental as I gauged prevailing winds and possibilities that it would jump the road to our fields. Safe, I decided, and turned back up the driveway.

Now that the urgency had faded, I felt the scalding mid-day sun on my shoulders and the dry air in my mouth. Cinders drifted by me in the wind. Such is life when you live in a tinderbox.

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Glimmers of green among the char. Hope–and grass–spring eternal.

Fotocrônica: Drink Milk

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Our region is famous for its milk production. It’s ranching country around here. Lots of local little producers, who deliver their milk daily to larger distributors who then either re-sell it to customers in-town or to larger, national buyers. Every morning the milk farmers drive their milk into town by pickup truck or by strapping their 50-liter tanks to the back of their motorcycles, a balancing feat that never ceases to amaze me.

I saw this homemade sticker at a local roadside restaurant. I’m pretty sure it belongs to a local milk farmer:

"Drink Milk"

“Drink Milk”

As the slogan goes: “Milk, it does a body good.” It’s pretty good for the local economy, too.

Fotocrônica: Import Taxes

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I nearly cried in the post office.

My mother sent us a box of used Legos, used baby clothes and other assorted items (none worth more than USD$10 each). The Brazilian Customs upon x-raying our box re-valued the items, deciding that in total they were worth R$350. They issued a tax based upon that worth. The state of Minas Gerais issued a second tax based upon that worth. So, if you examine the two receipts on the left, you’ll see that we were charged a total of R$349 in taxes. 100% of the estimated value of our box.

A minimum salary in 2014–what most around here earn unless you have a government job–was R$620. R$350 is approximately half my month’s salary. I was faced the with tough decision to pay, or send back the toys and books–some of them from my own childhood–and risk them getting lost. Feeling as though I was crumbling under the weight of emotional blackmail, I paid.

re-valued at R$350, this received R$340 in taxes

re-valued at R$350, this received R$340 in taxes

This is the story of taxes in Brazil. In some ways it’s very smart–tax imports so that the national producers can thrive. In other ways it’s very, very dumb because many items essential to growing the country become inaccessible to the ordinary consumer. Cars are outrageously priced, and everyone dreams of someday if they really save maybe, just maybe they’ll own a Nissan Corrola. Many items simply don’t exist in Brazil (I’m looking at you window screens and industrial dishwashers) because there are few national producers and the imported versions are prohibitively expensive. It’s often even hard to produce items because–guess what?–the parts to start the factory are imported.

It does explain why Brazil has a thriving black market. Until the import tax structure becomes more flexible and reasonable people will continue to work to thwart the system to get the items they crave.

As for our box? Well, our daughter and the other kids at the farm are loving the Legos. So maybe it was worth it.

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Priceless.

R.I.P Mr. Lao

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Lao was the most scurrilous cat I have ever met. Ever regardless of the consequences or others’ preferences he did what he wanted, where he wanted, when he wanted. Even if that included peeing on our rugs, eating our cake, sampling the milk pasteurizing on the stove, or stealing our chicken dinner. He scoffed at spray bottles. Pet him once, and he’d harrass you until you were sorry you ever were kind. If there ever was a cat sociopath, he was it.

Everyone has a redeeming quality, though. Lao’s was that our daughter adored him, and he had endless patience for her aggressive “hugs.” They got along famously. He kept her company. She gave him the affection he craved. Every morning she would crawl a straight path to the front door to go visit with him. Visitors chuckled about her new “babysitter.”

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Life for farm animals is tough, and while we’ll buy antibiotics and other basic treatments few here in rural Brazil will take a gravely sick farm pet to the veterinarian’s for treatment. When it’s time, it’s time.

This December Mr. Lao’s time had come. It surprised us. Like that 90-year old grandfather who is still kicking despite an exclusive diet of cigarettes, beer, hamburgers and Cheetos, we started wondering if he was indestructible. Our best guess was that what finally got him was some sort of kidney stone–probably from his lifelong diet of stolen milk products. He got similarly sick a few times, each time recovering. Until the final time when he laid down and despite our kindest care (yeah, he drove us nuts, but we’re not monsters after all) he didn’t get back up.

R.I.P. Lao. May we always be remembered for our best qualities. So we’ll remember you like this:

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R.I.P. Lao