My wife, Alma, doesn’t eat pork. It’s not a religious commitment—her offhand atheism sometimes shocks even little old watered-down-pantheist me. And I don’t think it’s about ethnic culinary solidarity, since nearly all our non-vegetarian Jewish friends eat pork. Sure, we observe Passover and mainly ignore Easter (except for the baskets of chocolate bunnies). We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas (double dibs on presents for our grateful children). But these are secularized observances, done more to instill in our son and daughter memories of some sense of ritual, of tradition. I think Alma’s pork prohibition, a fairly recent choice, is the line in the sand of her Jewish identity, maybe even some secret penance for marrying a Scottish-American Catholic (however irrevocably lapsed).
Back in the U.S., pork avoidance is a relatively simple procedure, like viewing distant storm clouds and having all the time in the world to head for shelter. But here in Portugal just saying no to pork can be the trickiest of culinary obstacle courses, and only the strong survive.
Our first full day in Lisbon, we begin the initial steps of a gallop (a molasses-like gallop) through various Portuguese bureaucracies to establish our new household. Hannah is patient through it all, reading a book or drawing in her notepad, so Alma and I, tired and crabby, decide to reward her when we come upon a Chinese restaurant a few doors down from our new bank. Familiar food—an ideal treat for an 11-year-old. Along with our meals, we order a plate of rice, and the waitress comes to our table with a neatly shaped oval mound that’s flecked, we see upon closer inspection, with tiny cubes of ham.
Alma is hungry after all our various treks, so she painstakingly separates with the prongs of her fork those offending pink pieces from the white grains of rice, choosing to ignore the thought that there might be a leftover glaze of ham-ishness on the rice itself. If she can’t see it, it’s magically no longer ham. I happen to love the stuff and so dig in happily. Alma jokes that if this meal is any indication, the year ahead will be a challenge. My wife has a generous soul, and she’s an anthropologist, after all, so it’s easy for her to give the Portuguese a break. Besides, she has a soft spot for the values behind placing recycling bins every few blocks in our neighborhood, and she was delighted to hear that in Portugal nearly all local produce is organically grown. And then there’s the seafood, the wonderful seafood …
A few days later, as our dear Portuguese friend Helena guides us through the labyrinth of the vast Continente mall complex, I find in the meat section of the supermarket a corner devoted to alheiras—sausages without pork. They were invented by Portuguese Jews in the 15th century who were among the nearly 10 percent of the population who’d been forced to convert to Christianity or leave. If you stayed and still secretly held to your beliefs, not eating sausages was a dead giveaway, “dead” being the active word here, since the Inquisition was a powerful force. So Jews living a clandestine religious life came up with stealth sausages filled with various spices, chicken meat, lamb, game meat, whatever was needed to mimic the taste of pork.
Alheiras in a grocery, who’da thunk it? Yet here at least six varieties shine beneath the counter lights, so I immediately pick up a pack of Alheiras Caça. Alma can finally eat Portuguese pork-free sausage, a culinary item so oxymoronic that it’ll surely add zip to the taste. And I can substitute alheiras for the pork in some of my favorite Portuguese meals, and cook squid stuffed with alheiras, or a cataplana with clams, potatoes, and alheiras … ah, the possibilities.
The following evening I struggle with the meal I’m preparing, because the alheiras are falling apart in a sizzling mix of garlic, onions, tomato, zucchini, and potatoes. The hearty chunks I’d envisioned have vanished, and I give one fragile lump a taste—it’s pungent, vinegary. Alheiras Caça—what does caça mean, anyway? I turn down the heat, making a silent note to hurry back, because I can get lost in a Portuguese dictionary. Simply flipping through a few pages, I find that Estou de maré alta means to be in a good mood. Maré alta means high tide, which is an apt metaphor for a country whose past greatness is based on maritime exploits. I briefly run through a fantasy of saying this and having a Portuguese acquaintance stare and then laugh at me. Here’s a better phrase: Claro com água, a nice way to say crystal clear, though I can’t imagine much of anything in the language being crystal clear to me, at least not for a while. Then I find this intriguing trio of words: escrever means to write, escrevinhar means to scribble, and an escrevinhador is a hack writer.
I finally make it to caça—game meat. So maybe that’s why the sausage (or what used to look like sausage—I’m back in the kitchen now and staring at a meatlike mush clinging to everything else in the pan) tastes, er, gamy. But is that all there is in the sausage? I rummage around in the garbage bag, find a list-of-ingredients tag, and discover that carne do porco is the first listed ingredient.
What’s this? Inquisition-brand alheiras? What a mean thing to do! Or it may not be malicious, merely clueless. I remember once taking a flight on a Portuguese airline when the stewardesses served ham sandwiches for lunch—no other option. The Portuguese don’t seem to be able to think about pork as a “problematic” meat; it’s too much a part of daily life. I’ve read somewhere that every part of a pig is used for some sort of recipe in Portuguese cooking, and that pork dishes are an integral part of many religious festivals. Since Paleolithic times, when stone statues of pigs dotted the countryside, pork has been the culture’s culinary obsession (and obsession is something I bow down to, in celebration and fear—a hefty proportion of the people in my fiction are gripped by personal passions that in various measures both fulfill and twist them). But putting pork in an “alheiras” sausage? That seems wrong, wronger than clueless.
The entire meal is suffused with the stuff, there’s no way to salvage it, and just then Alma and Hannah return home (yes, home, even if only a handful of days’ worth of home so far), happy with the results of their shopping expedition, hungry from all their walking about the city. There’s no way I can wipe off the gooey alheiras from the chunks of potato and zucchini, the slivers of garlic and onion, and we don’t have anything else in the refrigerator for dinner.
“What’s for dinner?” Alma asks, and when I say, “Alheiras,” she grins at the prospect with such anticipation (she loves the story of the cleverness of her ancestors) that I can’t work the words “but pork, pork” out of my mouth as she leans over the pan, takes a sample spoonful, and compliments the chef.
I move like a sleepwalker as I set the table—this is terrible; I cannot knowingly let my wife eat pork, but she just did and she’ll be so disappointed if I tell her the alheiras have pork; I must have picked the wrong kind; I wonder if maybe I can find a pigless version and serve her that later and no one will be the wiser—
At the table, more compliments. I swallow the alheiras along with my shame. I can’t tell her, and I know that if I don’t go to hell for this then I’m going to pay for it in another life, if I’m even allowed another life. I can’t ever tell her. Ever. I’ll never tell her.
I tell her. My vows of silence never last more than an hour or so. I’m not worth a damn at keeping secrets. So, later that evening, with some hemming and hawing (“Do you know what caça means, by the way?” I ask her), I finally confess in the softest, most contrite voice I can muster, ready to be blasted to perdition. Alma gives me one of those especially powerful, withering looks made all the more effective because she has large, beautiful eyes. She pauses a beat, then says she’ll add this to the long list of things she needs to forgive me for.
Two days later we realize that there’s not much in the fridge. (We’ve located a local grocery that sells fresh meat and fish, but it’s a long walk away.) It’s time to scrounge. There are some noodles, and a pack of hot dogs Alma had bought for Hannah. (She’d examined every available brand for telltale signs of porco until she finally came upon a package of slim wieners without the dreaded word.)
Now, though, before chopping up the franks and adding them to some pasta, Alma reflects on the alheiras incident, and, after an utterly deserved reproachful look at me, she checks each ingredient in the dictionary before cooking. She doesn’t have to look far: Suino, the first ingredient, is defined as “pig, hog.” The third ingredient, gordura do suino, is pig fat.
So, lesson learned: check the label, check it with the best dictionary you can find. (I’m beginning to wonder if the caça—"game meat"—of the alheiras is actually wild boar.) Perhaps a thesaurus of pork terms is available, because one should never assume that there isn’t anything such as pork ice cream, pork breakfast cereal, or pork reconstituted and hardened into lawn chairs, or worse, forks and knives.
The next evening, we’re all sitting at a table in a snazzy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood. Little pratos of appetizers appear—green olives in various sizes and hues, savory cheese, thick crusty bread, and a circular arrangement of what must seem to Alma a toxic-waste dump of thinly sliced presunto. I’m on my game and, without a word, deftly ease it down the table away from her, and as she reads the menu I remind her that entrecote means pork ribs. Yet what, really, will all our precautions accomplish? I remember reading years ago that there are no true vegetarians, since the air we breathe is filled with microscopic particles of dust, pollen, bits of dead insects, and, if you’re walking past a McDonald’s, microscopic morsels of hamburger. If this is true, imagine what various pork products must drift through the air currents of Lisbon.
But I can’t tell Alma this, ever. I’ll never tell her.