In the throes of speechwriting for next week’s World Food Tourism Summit, I realize quite suddenly that I am starving. It’s a beautiful sunny day, so I leave my notes on the table and wander around the corner, down the cobbled alleyway and its yellow, faded buildings, past the neighbour who stands at her window, watching everything. I walk and I walk, waiting for my sense of smell to dictate where I ought to eat.
I come upon a small, family run restaurant with no name. Inside there are half a dozen old men wearing felt fedoras or newsboy caps. Their faces are deeply lined, eyes crinkled from too much smiling. Cautiously, I walk in and lean over someone’s table to look at the menu, which is predictably in Portuguese.
With French and Spanish in my arsenal I’ve been able to get by, but not without embarrassment. Like Greece, people seem to assume that I am Portuguese, which makes two countries where I seem to fit in within Europe. Many of the women here are of short stature, joking to me that I will feel at home. When I inquired about my apartment, my landlady enthusiastically replied “I too am small and love soup!” A match made in heaven.
Bracing myself for miscommunication, I stammer a question about the plate of the day, since the menu indicates that it is available in half portion. The lady of the house is confused. When I’m nervous about offending someone with language, my voice softens and becomes almost inaudible. One of the grandpas bellows “metade porção!” to compensate, letting her know that I wanted the half plate. At least someone understood me, even if he’s staring at me suspiciously from his position under the menu.
It’s a grilled pork chop, and it comes with fried potatoes. Since I am new to Portugal I don’t yet know if the fries are safe for celiacs, as my limited communication skills do not yet include “so how contaminated is your oil, exactly?” Instead, I ask the woman of the house for salad with my half-portion. “Sem batatas?” she repeats, incredulously. I nod my head. “Yes yes, no potatoes. Just salad and pork, half portion please.” She gives me a lingering side eye and then spins on her heel and huffs into the kitchen.
Her husband cooks in the kitchen, shooting me bemused glances. When the meal comes out, the half portion is enormous. Three large pork chops smothered in garlic, and a giant salad on a separate plate. Dubious, I ask if this massive plate is truly the half portion. Laughing she says it is.
At this point all of the old men in the joint are turned around and watching me, yelling out that I am teeny now but I will have to eat more than I am used to here in Portugal. “Cuidado,” they say, watch out — your waistline will improve.
Blushing, I dig into my lunch under the gaze of the entire restaurant.
I make it through one of the pork chops, and the salad. The rest, there is just no way. I’m used to many small meals, an ideal for Saigon’s streets — not the norm here, I know. Long ago I trained myself to stop eating when I am feeling full, and I felt full.
I timidly walk up the counter, brandishing my plate. Can I take it to go, I ask? Faux pas. She looks at me, eyes wide. She looks over at all the old men. In unison, they all crack up. One of the men comes over, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Where are you from?” he demands.
“Montreal,” I reply, “but not for some time.”
He wants to know why I can’t eat more. “You are elegant,” he tells me, “but you need more food.” Smiling I reply that when I am full, I stop eating.
“Practice harder,” he tells me. “You can eat more.”
After fumbling around in the kitchen, the lady of the house emerges with a tiny plastic container, shaking her head at my ineptness. I put the remnants of my pork chops inside of it, face burning. I try to explain to my audience that I’m here for a month, and that I live nearby.
“Come back,” she says, “but bring someone with you. So you can actually eat the rest of your meal.”
I’m offered mint chocolate candies, which at first they take away thinking I am on a diet. I try to explain it’s not a diet, it’s just the size of my stomach. No one seems to understand. Hopefully when I return later in the month I will have a better grasp of Portuguese and can be a bit more communicative.
I wish everyone a great afternoon, and then wander home to put the pork chops in my fridge.
Hours later, profoundly lost in a separate part of town, I see someone walking up the stairs toward me. It’s the old man who told me to try harder and eat more. His eyes must be weak with age, because it isn’t until we are almost face-to-face that he realizes who I am. Shocked, he inhales sharply and then throws his head back and cackles loudly. Patting me on the arm he says, “boa tarde e boa sorte“. Good afternoon and good luck.
I might need it to eat here.
First afternoon on my own in town and it is already extremely entertaining. I’m really excited to get to know Lisbon better in the coming weeks.
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And finally, my Portuguese food maps are complete and in the shop!
Hand-drawn map featuring all the delicious Portuguese foods you love, placed around the shape of the country itself. Check it out here! While a bit more complicated than my map for Vietnam, we did include the Azores and Madeira on the maps. I am currently using the tote bag for my food shopping.
I hope everyone has had a good long weekend. Happy Easter, or Chag Sameach, as the case may be.