They made, we ate: Portugal is an untapped gem, rich with community and culinary delight

ERICEIRA, PORTUGAL — They cooked on charcoal grills in restaurant entranceways and, in one typically narrow street, in the hallway behind the kitchen — inside the restaurant. At home, they cooked outside on grills and indoors on cooktops and ovens.

For a week straight, they made, we ate. They made, we ate. It was a small gathering of Nieman fellows from our 2010 class — nine in all, including four teenagers — but it was a hungry one and, true to form, a thirsty one, too.

The fish went by the names of salted cod, sardines and a buttery wonder called dourada. There were shellfish  too — clams, mussels and mango-sized prawns served in a garlicky sauce that was worthy of all those calories, especially when sopped with crusty Portuguese bread.

At a seaside restaurant called Furnas, named for the rocky shoals outside the restaurant, we ate a crustacean

Percebes from the Ericeira restaurant Furnas. “It tastes just like the sea.”

the Portuguese revere — a creature called percebes that looks like something out of “Alien” but tastes exactly as our marvelous hostess, Joana Gorjão Henriques, promised it would: “just like the sea.”

Because no seaside eating adventure is complete without a contribution from our surfer pal

Isabel, minding the chicken for me — and translating Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Spike, one night I made Steve Pike’s lemon chicken with the help of Joana’s sister, Isabel, a fabulous cook. We melded the flavors of South Africa and Portugal (though, I think the recipe originated with a Brit), which seemed apt for our international group.

But mostly we noshed on seafood and pork — the Portuguese are serious about their chourico and linguica — all of it locally sourced. Isabel treated us to her octopus rice, starting with a pressure cooker (sign of a very serious cook), two octopi and one half of an onion unchopped. “Believe it or not, no water,” she said. It was delicious and, like the mystery crustacean, it tasted exactly like the sea.

Dinner with Luis at his remarkable home near Ericeira.exactly like the sea.

Portuguese food is amazing, including the prices. We bought sausage and chicken from the butcher who broke the meat down in front of us, and I paid less than one euro for a dozen yellow plums at a farmer’s market. Portugal may have the third highest unemployment in Europe, behind Greece and Spain, but we saw very few signs of it, even in the inner city. At an old printing factory turned entrepreneurial center in Lisbon, a shoemaker and designer (think Danskos but funkier) told me her business was going great guns and gave me an interview about why she refuses to offshore her product for my book.

We wondered why more people don’t vacation in this largely untapped European gem. Other than the couple from Northern Virginia I met in the airport, we saw no other visiting Americans the entire week.

These are Fontinhas (translation: small fountains) from a cute little cafe called Aroma a cha in Ericeira. They look like Pastel De Natas, but owner Maria Gracio told me they were a happy invention she and her partner made by accident one day when they were missing two ingredients. “All the people said it has almonds in it or cheese, but it doesn’t,” she said, carefully leaving out what it does have in it.

You can buy a top-notch espresso and the country’s ubiquitous pastry, the custard-filled pastel de nata — for less than two euros combined. The nine of us regularly ate out for less than 10 euros each, even at A Velha Senhora, the trendy tapas restaurant in a funky Lisbon neighborhood, where we’re told a decent two-bedroom apartment rents for around 600 euros a month. (Anthony Bourdain waxed his usual profane and poetic about eating his way through Lisbon here.)

But the thing that most struck me about the Portuguese was their inclusion of family in nearly everything they do. Friday night dinners involve multiple generations of children, copious amounts of wine and, rare for our own family of four, total immersion togetherness with no cellphones or text messages mucking up the scene. In the beach village of Ericeira, where Joana’s family has summered since she was a child, kids roam the tiled, café-dotted streets at night amid a multigenerational backdrop that feels safe, secure and vibrant in an almost-big city way.

We ended up spending more time with Max, our own 18-year-old who’s soon to leave for

Max in the monastery, Mafra.

college, than we had in months, probably years. (That may have had a little bit to do with Joana’s gorgeous teenage nieces, who gathered with us most nights.)

There was also the matter of the drinking age in Portugal, where Max was legal and enjoyed more than his share of Joana’s mohitos, which she begins by crushing sliced limes with sugar in a pitcher using only a wooden spoon (a long process that explains why her biceps are tougher than squid). Her father Luis shared his ginginha, a special family-recipe liqueur he makes with morello cherries. It doesn’t taste like the sea, but sipping from the bottle he kindly sent home with us will remind me of it and his modern, architectural wonder of a home, designed by Isabel’s husband, Zé Mateus.

While we cooked and ate for hours each night, we walked it off during touring centuries-old castles and cathedrals. (Lisbon is known as the city with seven hills, and navigating its ceramic-tiled sidewalks requires total attention and sure feet.) At  a monastery in Mafra, I lit a candle in memory of a young man I’m writing about at the request of his grieving mother. In Évora, we toured the creepy but oddly comforting Capela dos Ossos, with walls covered and decorated with human skulls and bones. Life is fleeting, the bone chapel reminds us with a welcome that

Dem bones, dem bones at the Capela dos Ossos, Evora.

translates to: “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” People actually travel from abroad to get married there.

We followed the surfers to the beach, where the breeze masked a sun that turned Max lobster pink, with thanks to Martha, our Boston traveling pal, for concocting him a black tea sunburn tonic. She also ventured out with 14-year-old Will at midnight to gather fallen lemons from Luis’s neighbor’s garden. When life gives Martha lemons, she stays up half the night making lemonade. (She also took three of the four kids off to Spain for a day while the rest of us played on another beach.)

Then there’s our other Boston traveler, Lisa, who could not leave “The World” (a program she co-anchors) behind, interviewing half the people we met — even the sardine

The sardine who gave his yummy life for us had no comment, despite Lisa’s persistent questioning.

bones on our plates. (They had no comment.) She spent the better part of a week in mythic search of the village fish lady, culminating with a foot quest on our final day in Romeirão with instructions that we should pick her up mid-morning in the village crossroads, which had us all shaking our heads, worried we’d never find her. But sure enough, there she was as we crested the hill, waiting for us next to the statue of a saint. (The fish lady was not available for comment, either, though word had spread across the tiny village that the American reporter with fabulous hair was looking for her.)

Joana with her mother and sister, Lisbon.

Teresa’s cookbook — and, yep, I’ve already asked for the beet salad recipe.

In Lisbon our last night, the trip ended with a dinner lovingly prepared by Joana’s mother, Teresa Fiadeiro, who consulted her handmade family cookbook to prepare Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, a dish featuring codfish, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and black olives, along with a remarkable salad of apples and beets.

They made, we ate, and the tasty memories kept coming, just like the sea.

The gang at A Velha Senhora, a tapas restaurant in a Lisbon neighborhood so cool (and reasonably priced) that it hasn’t made the tourist destination lists — yet.

Prologue to the prologue: The agony of organization

I’m sure I’ve written 90,000 words before in my career, but never all in one contiguous line. I’ve just signed my name to a legal contract with Little, Brown & Co. swearing to deliver nine-ty freak-in’ THOU-sand words by  June 3, 2013. Lord help me.

I feel like I did when I returned from cholera riots in Haiti in November 2010 and could not stop obsessing over my three notebooks full of interviews. If I didn’t type them up immediately in my sleep-deprived state, the house might burn down and I would lose them. (As if I wouldn’t then have a slightly bigger problem at hand.)

All my life I’ve wanted to write a book. It took me two decades to find the right big subject — globalization of the furniture industry — and the right main character, John Bassett III, the man from the storied furniture-making family who fought to keep his Galax workers employed.

If all goes well, “Factory Man” will have historical heft and contemporary relevance. Heroes will appear, and villains, too, along with my usual cast of underdogs — barbers, librarians and filling-station attendants; men and women who toiled in finishing rooms, glue stations and a place furniture folk call the “rough end.”

My book will come to a rough end if I don’t figure out how to manage the growing stacks of archival pictures and interviews and clippings I’m amassing by the day. Before I wrote my first word, I felt exactly like I did post-Haiti: freaked out about my material — how to keep it safe and manageable, how to remember what it is I already know.

Like most anxiety episodes, this one made little sense but did serve a purpose. Fretting over how to organize my stuff gave me pre-writing focus, something beyond, holy crap Batman, how am I going to write 90,000 words?

Luckily, my editor, John Parsley, suggested I call another of his journalist/authors, Annie Jacobsen, for tactical advice. Annie’s writing her second book, on the heels of her bestselling “Area 51,” and she didn’t answer my strategy questions so much as she intuited exactly what I needed to hear, beginning with: “You’ve got tons of time!” and “Take a deep breath!” and “Trust me, you’ve got the absolute best editor in the world.”

Organizing the material would come to me organically, she promised, and it was OK if I didn’t take the time to transcribe every word of every interview I recorded (but it’s good to notate my handwritten notes with recording time stamps for fact-checking later ).

Those books I’m reading and Post-It noting to death? It’s OK if I don’t type up every underlined word. Annie spends 12 hours a day in a room with Nazis — the subject of her current book — who appear to her in marked-up books, inside file folders of declassified military documents and on a screen full of digital rectangles. As with my project, some of her material is in computer files (she raves about Lion, the new Imac search engine), and some of it’s in the swarm of papers surrounding her desk. Among her tips:

• Footnote the hell out of your material as you write — whether you plan on keeping them in the final product or not — so you remember from whence every fact came.

• Break down the number of words you need to write weekly and assign yourself mini-deadlines, leaving a full month pre-deadline to edit and rewrite.

• By the time you get to chapter 18, you’ve been writing for so long that “all that typing pays off and you’re writing really well, and all your experience catches up with you, and it’s a gift from the heavens,” she told me. “In that regard, the rewriting and editing becomes actually really joyful.” Oh, how I hope.

Most importantly, she said: The more you write, the more you know where you’re going. The more irresistibly original facts you uncover, the better the bones of the book. “I’m constantly charging through my material looking for the single detail that’s going to make my chapter. Then I reverse-engineer from that.”

Upon Annie’s advice, I stopped reporting and started writing, after spending a fruitful couple of weeks in Bassett, mostly at the fabulous Bassett Historical Center, where librarian Pat Ross is  my new best friend. (Who else would know that the large building on the right of this picture is the old Riverside Hotel, and that innkeeper Miss Mattie Smith used to sell bag lunches for the train passengers when they stopped at the Bassett station?)

I also took time to set up a chapter-by-chapter filing system for notes, sources and text, suggested by my Nieman Fellow pal Shankar Vedantam, who wrote “The Hidden Brain.” I owe Shankar a huge debt for suggesting a work strategy I have come to think of as “Shankar Five Years From Now” during one of our Nieman seminars in 2010. It involves waking up at 5 every morning to work on personal projects before you go to your day job — the idea being that, if you work very hard, the personal projects will become your day job. That method echoed loudly last fall when my Roanoke Times colleague Ralph Berrier (“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me”) baited me into writing the proposal for this book, explaining that he’d written his while working full-time and with a newborn baby in the house. “Write the damn thing, Macy. Just do it!” (We Midwesterners are mightily swayed by guilt.)

I’m only halfway through my second chapter. Not that I’m counting or anything, but I’ve written and rewritten 4,000 words. Many of them will get deleted and reworked, I know, and there’s a good chance I’ll get to the end before I realize that the beginning is glaringly wrong. E.L. Doctorow once said that book-writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In other words, focus only on what’s in front of you, do that, then do the next little bit.

My groovy financial planner Tom Nasta e-mailed a version of the same advice last week. When we bought our first-ever new car last year, Quaker Tom reassured me the money was well-spent: “It’s OK. Jesus would have driven a Subaru!” Tom’s latest nugget is a quote from the writer R.H. Blyth: “Think of Zen, of the Void, of Good and Evil, and you are bound hand and foot. Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing in the moment and you are free as a bird.”

Now that I’ve stopped fretting over where to put stuff, I’m actually writing my book. The recipe is sure to change, but for now it’s deep breath followed by juicy detail followed by deep breath. Repeat 90,000 times.

My favorite Harvard student

Tonight I met up with Salena Sullivan, a sophomore at Harvard. Roanoke readers may remember my story on her last year — she was raised by a single mom and by her community librarian, the fabulous Carla Lewis.

We met for coffee and then she came home for an impromptu dinner, followed by an outing to Trader Joe’s. Our girl at Harvard, as the regulars at the Gainsboro library like to call her, is doing quite well, thank you. She’s gotten used to earning the occasional BIMG_0593, but overall, I’d say she owns the place.

She gave me course advice, told me where to get the free shuttle from the Radcliffe quad to the yard and advised me to “get a grip” on the number of courses I’m planning to shop. “That many? Really?”

Salena will be reshelving books, etc., for her work-study job at Widener, the main library on campus, where I’ve reserved a carrel on the sixth floor, thinking the top floor would be warmer in the colder months. “Yeah, right,” she said.

It’s great to have a young mentor like Salena here. She’s even offered to house- and Lucky-sit for us!

Photo by Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

Photo by Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

When Salena told the people at the library she got into Harvard, old men set down the newspapers they were reading and wept. Librarian Carla Lewis, her mentor, screamed.

One yo-yo at a time

“So You Are Here — Don’t Worry.” That was the title of the Rev. Peter Gomes’ lecture Sunday at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

Worry about big things, he told us, like what you’re going to do with your life. Don’t worry about whether the person sitting next to you is smarter, or better published, or if they have the world’s most fabulous hair.

Anyone who knows me can see why I was compelled to attend church for the first time in many months. Worry is my middle name. Also, my first and last. I come from a long line of worriers, with one form of anxiety disorder or another being passed down through the generations, not unlike the premature gray hair, hyper-ticklish feet and a propensity for beer. Judging from my incredibly astute fellow fellows — who asked so many questions at orientation, I could’ve sworn we were at  a press conference harvard1 005— I’m definitely not alone.

The all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Nieman Fellowship presents a whole new boatload of worries, the main one being: I want to squeeze the most of out these 10 months, but I also want to relax, make new friends and have a really good time. Also, lose 15 pounds. . . though, given the state of the buffet (Nieman motto: A Dessert must follow every meal), there’s a fat, fat chance of that.

So do I sign up for Michael Sandel’s ethic class, which I know I should, or do I take the New Yorker writer James Wood’s class on post-war fiction, which sounds infinitely more fun? (They’re both offered at the same time.)

Sociology of the black community or women and religion? Narrative writing or introduction to health-care policy?

Drawing or science of the brain?

This weekend, our surrogate daughter/little-sister/former babysitter/best pal Rose is visiting, and we’re going to see “The Donkey Show,” a rendering of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” set to disco music where the audience must dance as part of the show. (Cringe, Connie, cringe.)

Next week, the boys start school — and not a second too soon! They are very bored and need to make some friends; otherwise, we may have to sew the cell phone onto lonely Max’s ear. Will’s best friend in Cambridge so far is his new yo-yo. (He’s now on his third.)

The yo-yo master at work in front of our house.

The yo-yo master at work in front of our house.

We’re having a great time, but it seems that life in Roanoke is carrying on without us: How is it that the newspaper is still publishing every day? How is it that we missed Chris’ goofy-song concert, Ed’s birthday party and the soiree for Dan’s retirement?

We miss our sweet, dumb dog Lucky, who heard Will’s voice on a video online yesterday and, according to the inlaws who are watching him for us till October, he came running and wagged his tail. (Maybe he’s smarter than we give him credit for.)

I haven’t figured out exactly what courses I’m taking yet; they give you a week to “shop” them, so I’ve still got time to decide.

Till then, I’ll quell my worries with some writing — and living — advice by E.L. Doctorow via Anne Lamott:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

One class, one question, one yo-yo at a time.

Settling in, except for the smell

Walden Pond at dusk

Walden Pond at dusk

The fam at Walden Pond, escaping the 93-degree Cambridge heat.

The fam at Walden Pond, escaping the 93-degree Cambridge heat.

Will and his cousin Chloe (our first visitor!) at one of the Harvard Yard gates

Will and his cousin Chloe (our first visitor!) at one of the Harvard Yard gates

Bike riding along the Charles. . . .

Bike riding along the Charles. . . .

Oh, googlemaps, how we adore ye — even when you fail us.

We’ve meandered our way across the Somerville line with the help of not one but two police escorts. (Don’t tell Skip Gates I said this, but they’re nicer than you’d think.)

We’ve been to every Target store within a 10-mile radius.

Last night — in the most oppressive heat to hit Massachusetts yet this year (boy, we miss the ubiquitous Southern air conditioning) — we drove to nearby Concord to wet our stinkin’ bodies in Walden Pond, eat homemade chicken salad and imagine Thoreau, who most certainly did not have to tango with the Cambridge parking sticker authorities.

Speaking of our favorite Kafka-esque bureaucrats: They speak so softly through the plexiglass you can barely hear them, but they carry a giant, we’ll-tow-your-ass shtick. After spending more than $1,000 on Massachusetts insurance, registration and tags, we were turned away because we neglected to bring two pieces of mail to the office as proof of address — it didn’t matter that we hadn’t yet received any mail because we’d just arrived!

“How many Nieman fellows does it take to change a lightbulb?” my newspaper pal Matt Chittum wanted to know.

“Four. One to call Tom and three to audit a course about it.”

The part about calling Tom is dead-on. He’s already proved himself indispensable, installing closet lights, setting up e-mail so I can still use my same address, and helping me figure out how to manage my new Kryptonite bike lock.

He helped a stranded friend of a neighbor jump-start her car, and backed the lady’s husband’s car out of the drive because in all her Brooklyn-born years, she’d never learned to drive.

Not driving here is pretty smart, actually, which is why we’ve walked the 25-minute walk to Harvard campus twice already and taken the bike trail along the Charles to get our Trader Joe’s fix. Thanks to Sara and Chris and Connie for the awesome gift-card going-away gifts! (And to Ian, for the super-thoughtful subway pass!)

I’m writing from my desk, which is wedged between a bedroom wall, a dresser and our bed. Will’s bed is set up in the former dining room, which is also pinch-hitting as a home office for Tom. The eat-in kitchen, while suffering from a smell that no manner of mopping seems to get rid of — alas, it ain’t garlic — also holds the washer and dryer. Of course the princely teenager gets his own unadulterated space, something I think we can all agree is a very good thing, especially since we caved and got him a moving-guilt Xbox.

But overall, we are loving the smaller digs, less than half the size of our hulking Roanoke Ugly. There’s less space to clean, less stuff to manage, and it has a lovely 1880’s-era feel, complete with a great front porch to read the Boston Globe on and beautiful window lighting. It also happens to be downstairs from the wonderful Peter and Roz, who brought us Sam Adams beers the night we moved in and a thermos full of coffee the next day.

Orientation begins next week. We’re thinking of a weekend beach outing, maybe even a trip to see the Maine relatives and celebrate Tom’s birthday on Sunday.

Thanks to all of our great Roanoke pals and relatives for the fantastic send-off. We miss you already. And come visit, seriously. I’m sure the mystery kitchen odor will be gone before too long.

Tom’s on the case, after all.

About this blog

I’m a journalist based in Roanoke, Va., and my family and I are about to embark on a yearlong journey to Cambridge, Ma., where I’ve been astonishingly lucky enough to get a Nieman Fellowship for Journalism.

I hope to blog about our experiences with the move — the culture change from South to North, my kids (the 15-year-old is a little less than thrilled by the move), my patient husband who’s ready and willing to move his online teaching job to Boston and maybe — if he’s very Lucky, which he is (cause that’s his name) — the dog.

Goober and Gomer are going to Harvard, is another way of looking at this journey: a couple of Midwesterners who still think Skyline Chili and a cold beer are two of the greatest indulgences in the world.

“So you think I’m smart enough to go to Harvard?” I asked the teenager last night.
“Well. . . . . ” he said.

We shall see.