Read Old Man Scanlon

Second Chance

17 May 2016

The maples are full-fledged. The oaks aren’t far behind, and they’re already fueling the gentle patter of caterpillar frass on my car roof. Roadsides burgeon with celandine and yellow rocket, augmenting the initial explosion of gaudy yellow composites. White horse chestnut clusters and layered dogwood canopies usurp the place of spring’s early audio harbingers, the peepers, whose singing population has dwindled to a handful of forlorn individuals. Before I complete this piece the peepers will have ceased entirely and dogwood flowers will have polka-dotted my driveway: to all things there is a season. Though grey and windy today, it would have been a shirtsleeves afternoon if we were in January, but I decide to celebrate spring indoors by contriving a food offering to the kitchen gods.

We use food as cement to bind together families and friends, as the lingua franca of social occasions, functions almost as important as nourishment. Family dinner has attained mythic stature, and a foodless gathering of friends is a mere political rally. Food is also a potent anti-xenophobic—I’m convinced that my ancestors’ meat pies and lobscouse contributed to New England’s grudging toleration of French and Irish newcomers. But the virtue of preparing food, mechanical chopping and peeling and boiling, is not widely appreciated. Food work is to me not a chore, though I do expend some labor, a resource I carefully conserve. Deliberately putting my fingers at risk, breaking however minimally into the creative zone, restores me.

This will be my second attempt at making cachupa, which I first experienced at my grandson’s wedding feast. With my new-found, deep, and nuanced Wikipedia-stoked appreciation of Cape Verdean culture, I recognized it by the hominy, its cornerstone ingredient. I knew it was inevitable that I’d have to try making it at home. Tasting it, I couldn’t identify anything but hominy, and Aunt Auta’s version was casserole-like rather than a stew, so I suspected I’d be doing violence to the letter and spirit of any recipe I found. Authentic would not be in the cards.

A national dish is open to a myriad of interpretations and my friend Google is never at a loss for recipes. I found three or four versions that I could live with and that I’d have no qualms about adapting. All shared some common ingredients—a reassuring consistency. All had combinations of ingredients that didn’t sound overtly disgusting. All had a simplicity of construction which, if reduced to my usual practice of tossing together and boiling the ingredients, would not make the final product suffer. Best of all, each had at least one ingredient that I’d never used. Even such a small leap into the dark is a heady relaxation of control-freakishness, trusting experience and instinct without expecting perfection or even a given outcome.

Cheryl could muster little enthusiasm for my first batch. She says that the chouriço makes it too greasy, and she doesn’t care for the hominy. I like the chouriço but I understand about the hominy. Its taste hints at cashews, which is a good thing, but that’s pretty much neutralized by an unattractive flaccid gummy texture. So I’m planning a second attempt. I’m loath to jettison chouriço, one of the ingredients new to me, but I recall that tuna has some standing in Cape Verdean cooking. I’m familiar with tuna. Though I’ve never used it in a stew, it strikes me as a good replacement. I decide to substitute cabbage and plain corn for the hominy, and I feel like I might have a contender, even though it and I will never pass as Cape Verdean.

To best serve my cooking superstitions, the construction of round-two cachupa must be done in solitude accompanied by loud music, the choice of which will have a subtle if not actually measurable effect on the results. In keeping with the theme of experimentation I opt for Saint-Saens and Chopin to pinch-hit for my usual triumvirate of German Bs. It is also the right time to offer homage to my grandson, who’s found the wherewithal to know his heart and follow it. That gives me hope for the future, which includes this stew, but it’s of minimal importance to me whether it will even be edible.