April 6, 2006

Just make sure the bird is really dead

So here's the real story on cutting the collard greens...

Some years ago my mom forwarded me a cooking article about preparing collard greens Brazilian style. The article claimed that a Brazilian girl was considered ready to marry when she could cut her greens very very thin. Collards ("couve" in Portuguese) here are not the tough dry leathery leaves that we think of in the US. They are bright green, soft and smell like fresh cut grass. There's even a sub-type called couve manteiga or butter collards and they are super soft -- you can eat them raw in salad. Anyway, back in Brooklyn, C showed me how to roll the leaves like a cigar and cut them thin. I could never get them as finely sliced as he could and our friends teased that he was ready to marry, but I wasn't.

Well, compared with Geralda, neither one of us will be ready for a long time. Her greens come out as fine as my hair. And she does it by gathering them all up in her hand, holding them tight, and shaving them with a knife.


She swears she never cut herself, and she swears her mother could do them even thinner (surely that’s just modesty on her part as it would be impossible to cut them thinner without turning them into mush).

Today I asked her about the marriage rumor and she confirmed it, and added more details.

In rural areas in generations past, it was common that when a boy wanted to marry a girl, his mother would invite her over for lunch. But of course it wasn't a simple lunch invitation. Upon arriving at the house of her potential future mother-in-law, she would be invited into the kitchen and casually asked if she could lend a hand in the lunch preparation. Then she would inevitably be asked to kill, pluck and clean a chicken and cut collard greens, while mother-in-law looked on. Should she fail to do either of these swiftly, neatly, and to what I’m sure were excruciating exacting standards, she was not accepted and the marriage usually wouldn't take place.

It seems that the chicken killing was (still is) a tad more grueling than hacking away with a sharp knife at a fist full of greens in your unprotected hand. First you had to make sure the wood in the stove was banked properly (no electric or gas available) so that you could get a big pot of water boiling quickly. Then you had to catch the lucky bird of the day, slice it’s neck and drain the blood. Hopefully your water was rapidly boiling at this point so you could douse the bird quickly with a firm grip on his feet, pull it out and yank off whatever feathers you could. Then repeat as many times as necessary to get all the feathers off. When you are left with just pinfeathers, the nearly naked bird gets passed over the fire until the pins all burn off. Now you were finally ready to gut it and prepare it for cooking. Not exactly fast food.

Geralda recounted stories about girls rushing through the process and not killing the bird completely (apparently there is a jugular that is easy to miss). In their haste they attempted to toss an only half dead bird into the boiling water which quickly revived the little beast and sent boiling water, blood and feathers flying everywhere. Yuck. It’s no wonder of ten children in her family only four of them ever married.

Geralda told us these stories today over lunch while we filmed. We also filmed yesterday at her house. Clearly we are amateurs, learning on our feet. Yesterdays’ footage came back nearly unusable – light, sound, and even our interviewing style didn’t work out. Also, Geralda was nervous. She was trying really hard to give us what she thought we wanted to hear – which came out very Pollyanna sunshine, and not too interesting. We on the other hand were trying to get something else out of her that potentially isn’t there. I was pretty cognizant of the fact that I didn’t want to ask leading questions and fish around too much for answers she didn’t want to give. But it was also pretty clear that she’s worried that her words are being documented here for all posterity and she wants to leave a positive, happy, no-complaints record of her life -- which I totally respect. But it doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting film.

Of course we were naïve to think we could just turn the camera on and great things would happen. The last thing I was worried about was Geralda not offering things up in the way we expected. We thought we were going to be learning one thing (technically how to shoot a film) and are getting a totally different lesson. Isn’t that how life always seems to go?

Gratuitous dog photo: Guardian of the cookbooks…


Anonymous said...

Your site is on top of my favourites - Great work I like it.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Just want to say what a nice site. Bye, see you soon.