The Story

Brilliant Move:

Asking the deliveryman from Cape Verde for a cooking lesson.

By Lindsay Sterling

The black man delivering my new bed had a foreign accent. I asked where he was from. “Cape Verde,” Alberto said, pleasantly surprised, like none of his delivery recipients had ever asked him that. Cape Verde is a group of ten volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa. Alberto came here to find work and is happy how things turned out. He said he would be glad to teach me a dish from Cape Verde for Immigrant Kitchens, but he thought I should really cook with his cousin, who was an amazing cook. He gave me both of their phone numbers and drove off in a truck with the logo on it: “Brilliant Move.”
Alberto’s cousin, Clarice, spoke so little English that I wondered if we’d manage to connect. I thought she told me to meet her at her sister’s house at a certain address on Riverside Street in Brockton, Massachusetts, on Sunday at 10:00am. I worried that I might waste five hours driving down there and back with nothing to show for it but a shrinking ozone layer. But how often does a Cape Verdean cook come knocking on your door – in Maine? During the two-and-a-half-hour drive, various radio stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts broadcasted updates about tragedies in mostly black neighborhoods with white police officers. The stories were making me profoundly disappointed in the human race. I didn’t know anything about Brockton. My father-in-law said it was tough.
I came upon the house with the right address. It was a neat cape on a suburban street tightly fit with houses. Clarice waved me in with a gap-toothed smile. She was short with black hair. Her skin was darker than mine but lighter than Alberto’s. In the next four hours, Clarice and her sister Lucy filled ten glass baking dishes with salt cod casseroles, stewed calamari, lasagna, and spaghetti. All these casseroles would feed their families during the week after Clarice and Lucy got home from their jobs at the plastic bag factory.
In the middle of cooking, Clarice showed me more food in the fridge that they’d already prepared that weekend: grilled pork ribs; fried rice with duck, corn, and mussels; and a famous black bean and pork dish called feigoada. I was in awe. These women were my idols. They were amazing cooks, totally organized, with ‘ready made awesome food available for their families and friends at all times. Clarice microwaved plates of the duck and the feigoada for me for lunch. They were out of this world.
I watched them make the bacalhau com natas (potato and salt cod casserole). They sautéed a mixture onions, tomato, cilantro, garlic, yellow and red pepper, five seasoning blends by Goya and Knorr brands, white pepper, Cajun spice, salt cod, and cooked potatoes. Then they put the mixture in a baking dish, decorated the top with green olives and slices of hard boiled egg, poured béchamel sauce over everything, and baked it in the oven until top turned golden brown.
I couldn’t believe when they sent me home with a salt cod casserole and a lasagna for my family. On the ride home, the news kept spewing sad racial tension while casseroles filled my car with a kind of Cape Verdean love. My mind retorted: Black Family Teaches White Woman Cod Casserole. No One Dies. Food is Awesome.
               By the time I got home late that evening, my family was tired and hungry. The light went on about the lesson Clarice and her sister had taught me that day: cook ahead of time. I pulled out the already prepared salt-cod casserole. “Clarice and her sister from Cape Verde made it for us,” I said, feeling a surge of connection and gratitude. The human race could be downright amazing, too.

For the recipes, click at right. 

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2015