Thursday, December 31, 2009


NOTE: This blog was originally posted to on July 12, 2005, a little more than four years ago. I'm re-posting it here because it's about what I'm cooking tomorrow, in celebration of the first day of the second decade of the new millennium.


Because sometimes it takes a village to feed a village

I sometimes joke that my family's lineage is like a Steinbeck novel (or two Steinbeck novels, actually). You see, my mother's parents drove to California in an old black Ford, strait out of the dustbowl and the pages of "The Grapes of Wrath". A few years earlier, using both legal and, er, 'less than legal' means, my father's great-grandparents arrived from the Azores and found jobs in Monterey, California, on "Cannery Row". Though I think of myself mostly as an 'okie boy', having grown up in the unincorporated 'Okieville' neighborhood of Stockton, California, I also have plenty of childhood memories of my Portuguese heritage , one of which was the attending of my first festa.

Festas are held throughout Northern California every year, are sponsored by the local Portuguese Club and Catholic parish, and are a custom leftover from 'the old country'. In the Azores, a group of islands more than nine hundred miles from Portugal, festas were held each year for one very important reason... To ensure that, for one day out of the year, no one in the village went hungry. For poor Azorian villages, feeding all and sundry was probably a very daunting task, and inspired the creation of a dish called "Sopas" (or, as we pronounced it in my family, "soupish"). Sopas relied on one village patron to donate an animal, which was then cooked up in such a fashion as to maximize the number of people that could be fed. Traditional sopas consists of, at a minimum, the most inexpensive cut of beef and a pot of water and spices, all of which are cooked up together (sometimes for days), until a palatable, soup-like mixture is achieved. Trays are then arranged with thick slices of bread topped with mint leaves, upon which the soup-like mixture is then ladled onto before serving. There are a number of common variations to the 'recipe', sometimes in the area of the spices used, sometimes with additional ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, or possibly even cabbage added to the mix.

When one arrives at a festa, one is first expected to pay tribute to The Holy Mother and local parish with a donation, paid at a shrine at the festa's entrance (only those who can pay are expected to, and, as a kid being raised in a Baptist church, that shrine was like nothing I'd ever seen before, let me tell you). All are then ushered into a large hall where everyone is fed. In the early days of Portuguese immigration to California's Central Valley, the local Portuguese Clubs would advertise their festas in the local papers, in an effort to continue the tradition of attempting to 'feed the entire village'. I believe this practice has diminished over the years, however, though festas still vary from the most modest of affairs (as described herein) to more elaborate events that host 'bloodless bullfights' and other activities.

The history of the festa aside, sopas has become a cherished tradition in our family, one I perpetuated just this past Sunday for a visitor from Alaska. The recipe I cook up these days is a little more elaborate than you'd probably find at a festa (and is mostly the work of my Aunt Pricilla [who is Portuguese] and my mother [who is not], though she cooks like she is (smile)), but its lineage can still be traced back to a poor little village on an Azorean island called "Pico". Here it is, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

Recipe for Sopas:
Assemble in a pot one lean round roast (approx. 2.5 lbs), two sliced yellow onions, the contents of a small jar of pickling spices securely tied up in cheesecloth, two 32oz. cans of crushed tomatoes, a half to a full 32oz can of extra water, a 1.5 liter bottle (or two 750ml bottles) of burgundy, between two to four extra bay leaves, and a dash of cumin. Bring to a boil and then lower flame to a low simmer. Cook for six to eight hours until the meat of the roast falls apart (after around five hours, you can help the 'falling apart process' with a spoon, the final goal being that the meat is as evenly represented throughout as possible).

When the pot is ready, take several loaves of fresh baked bread (I used sourdough back in California but, now that I've moved to Illinois, I often use Vienna loaves instead), slice the loaves into pieces that are approximately an inch and a half thick, arrange the pieces of bread in large pans (I use the bottom of broiler pans, though lasagna pans or other large pans should work just fine), place several fresh mint leaves on top of each piece of bread, ladle the soupy meat mixture over the trays of bread and serve (YUM!!!).

2012 addendum: I've been enjoying a healthier version of sopas for several years now, where I've substituted a boneless turkey breast roast (sans skin or extra fat) for the beef roast, up to 64oz of water (versus 16-32oz) and fresh-baked whole-grain loaves for the Vienna or sourdough loaves (on the unhealthy side, I also sometimes add a dash of fresh-ground sea salt to taste). I think it tastes just as good, if not better, and it's definitely lower in fat and higher in whole grains. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An open letter to my Uncle, William Manuel Nunes

November 12, 1934 - December 18, 2009

Dearest Uncle,

I'm sorry I was unable to attend today's service. It was held in southern California, a locale you've called home most of your life, thousands of miles and more than fifty degrees from the frigid heartland where I now reside. I'm told the event was well attended, with family and friends, clients and fellow Christians, all there to pay their respects and make their good-byes. And yet, while I wish I could've been there, my regret is out of respect for those who attended, and not because I needed to say goodbye... Because you're still with me and always will be.

Growing up in our mutual birthplace of Stockton, California, my family's yearly visits to "Uncle Bill's house" in Cucamonga (now Rancho Cucamonga), California, were not only a family tradition but also an indelible part of my childhood. And though the occasional side-trips to Disneyland were certainly fun, it's not the Matterhorn or leftover 'A' and 'B' tickets I remember most... It's the time I spent visiting you, my uncle Bill.

I can recall sitting outside on your back porch, with you and my parents, chatting about this and that, as families do (though one unaccustomed to Nunes family traditions might have mistakenly thought we were arguing). I remember winter mornings spent outside in the southern California sun, when those back home in Stockton were huddled indoors away from the cold, damp tule fog. I also remember sipping coffee with you in your kitchen, the vineyards that once surrounded your home (long since replaced by housing developments), and your 'wishing well'. Most of all though, I remember visiting with you in your natural element... Your barbershop.

Regardless of how early we'd make the drive, you were always waiting, chatting up the day's first customers or other barbers, coffee cup in hand. And every time you picked up your sheers, a miraculous transformation occurred...The boisterous former Navy man and gregarious uncle was instantly muted and partially replaced by the meticulous craftsman, whose chosen trade required precision, even perfection... Along with the cracking of the occasional joke or witty banter. Those who failed to watch (and watch closely) simply saw you pick up scissors and begin to work... But I and others saw the hard-earned skills and craftsman's pride engage instantaneously and [seemingly]effortlessly as well.

You've been so many things to so many people over the years, likely causing each of us to see and remember you a little differently... As a barber, husband, brother, father, uncle, friend, veteran, proprietor and small-business owner... The many monikers you've worn. And yet, all the labels fall short... So very short.

For, to me, your nephew, you're all of those things and so much more. To me, you're also a ready smile, a strong handshake, a loving voice, a set of twinkling eyes, a man so much larger than life as to make mere mortal rituals such as funerals utterly and entirely meaningless.

Because I can still feel you with me... In the heart that aspires to be as expansive, in the hands that aspire to be as strong, in the smile that aspires to be as ready, and in the man that aspires to be as hard-working, steadfast, and true... As my uncle Bill.

I love you, Uncle.