Capturing My Portuguese Family’s Recipes

Avo (Vovo) Costa and Me

Little did I realize that I lost more than my grandmother, VoVo Costa, when she passed away. Gone, too, were recipes for many of her famous dishes. Sadly, she never wrote them down because, like most Portuguese women of her generation on the island of São Miguel (one of the nine Azorean islands off the coast of Portugal where my family’s from), she was never taught to read or write. And although everyone in the family has their own version of VoVo’s classics, they’re merely that. To this day no one can match her Sopa de Galinha (chicken soup) or her often-copied Recheio com chouriço (spicy sausage stuffing), which were always the highlights of Sunday dinner.

Clearly, something had to be done. So I approached my mother and aunts with a sheepish grin on my face and a video camera in my hand. My goal: to film family favorites being prepared before they too were lost. I wanted a permanent record of the food that filled three tables every Sunday when we laughed and talked (which to other families sounded like fighting), and my mother and aunts buzzed about happily shoveling their specialties onto our plates.

While they were eager to squeeze their way into the viewfinder, capturing their culinary heirlooms proved daunting. For example, there must have been a shortage of measuring cups and spoons in the Azores, because my mother and aunts cook only with pinches of this and handfuls of that. I had to yell “CUT!” more times than I care to recall to fish out a mound of parsley from boiling broth or catch a fistful of garlic midair in order to measure it properly.

The town of Maia, São Miguel, Azores

The town of Maia, São Miguel, Azores

Vocabulary proved another sticking point. While the National Live Stock and Meat Board categorizes beef into no fewer than 45 different cuts, it’s all just “meat” to my mother. Any further questioning was met with a shrug of her shoulders and — as if I were asking about sex — the admonition to discuss it with my father. In her intuitive, cookbook-free world, there were no fancy names or elaborate techniques. You simply rolled up your sleeves and began chopping.

But over time the recipes, as well as forgotten bits of family history, revealed themselves. I remembered summer days spent shucking fava beans with VoVo in her kitchen. And even though she sat there in just her slip plonking beans into a big white washtub at her feet, she looked like an empress. I joked with my mother about the ridiculous amount of food she makes every October for family and friends who help my father harvest his grapes for wine. Believe it or not, I even developed an appreciation, but certainly not a taste, for my Aunt Irene’s octopus stew.

Sunday Dinner, the Leite House, 1960

I came to accept that our food defines us, whether we’re sitting at the kitchen table or not. Simply put, we are a family of immigrants — something I denied as a teenager by idolizing Big Macs and the Colonel’s original recipe. Anything to deep-six the Portuguese part of my Portuguese-American heritage.

Well, not any longer. My first visit to the Azores is scheduled for next fall. To prepare, I’m learning Portuguese, much to the hilarity of everyone. But most important, whenever I crave a taste of home, I just pop a cassette into the VCR and follow along with my mother and aunts — to me, the best collection of chefs on TV.

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Comments
Comments
  1. Teresa says:

    I had fun reading this because it reminds me of my own family and, I have to say, myself. I learned how to cook with pinches of this and dashes of that, and I think that’s so intuitive! That’s genuine cuisine to me; feeling the food being cook and accomplishing to its needs. I’m from Portugal, recently living in USA, and I had just discover your website, after hearing about your book. I have to say I know most of the Portuguese recipes you have here by memory and I’m thrilled that you’re showing the flavors of Portugal like that. Thank you.

    • David Leite says:

      Teresa, I’m delighted you found Leite’s Culinaria and that you enjoy the recipes here. I hope to add more Portuguese dishes soon.

  2. Sofia Reino says:

    Loved this writing. Even though I am not your traditional immigrant (we lived all over the world and were fortunate to go back home at least once a year and lived there a total of 7 years–three different times), I must say my grandmother is also a tremendous influence in how I cook today. She usually would also not use measuring cups or spoons but luckily she would write down all the recipes she made throughout her life. I am now slowly going through her books (I inherited) of traditional Portuguese cooking, her own interpretations and from all over the world as she too was a traveler. 

  3. KarenJ says:

    It was fun reading this article, but I got a special kick out of looking at the dining table photo. I’m an east coast American (Boston mother, N.Y. father, and D.C. with a Cape Cod– summers only–upbringing). I now live in Portugal with my Portuguese husband. I’ve sat at many tables that look just like this! Granted, when it’s at our house it may well include Bulgarians, Germans, English, and Canadians digging in, but the food is always Portuguese and the wine bottles abound! When we were still in the States, we had for five years a Portuguese restaurant (my husband was the chef) where the tables tended to look pretty much the same! :>) Thank you.

    • David Leite says:

      KarenJ, that’s what I love about food. No matter what your background we all can relate. Tell me: 1.) Where in Portugal are you?, and 2.) Where was your husband’s restaurant?

  4. Karen says:

    Hi, my family ancestors also come from the Azores from what I am told. The only dish that was passed to me from my father’s side which they all lived in the San Jose, CA area was Portuguese Beans. It was made from pinto beans, ground beef, linguiça, green peppers, onions, and cilantro. I think that it was changed around a bit. Anyway, my daughter has to do a high school senior project, and she wanted to do it on Portuguese food, do you have any simple delicious recipes we can use? I found a few, like Portuguese sweet bread and your Deep-fried green beans and pinapple picando burger, they sound really good. I would appreciate it! I also wanted you to know my mom came from a Costa family, don’t know if it is a relation or not.

  5. Ginny says:

    David I love reading about your family, I have family that also came from the same island (Da Souza) and my Great Grandmother was also called VoVo, and my Grandmother was full-blooded Portuguese, but she passed away when I was only 12 years old; I was just beginning to learn to cook from her. I live in Louisiana, and some of the recipes that I have found do not seem to be to different from the cooking that I do.

    • David Leite says:

      Ginny, thank you for your kind words. It is amazing how similar the foods of different cultures can be. I find Southern cooking to be similar to Portuguese cooking: a lot of pork, kale/collard greens, beans, cornmeal/grits, etc. Good taste, apparently, know no borders.

  6. Daniel de Sá says:

    Hello, David, very beautiful what you said, and the way you said it, about your grandmother and their recipes. If you cook as well as you write, oh, my God, all of it must be irresistible.

    From Maia, with friendship,

    Daniel de Sá

    • David Leite says:

      Daniel, thank you for the kind works. Maia? That’s where my father’s family is from. He grew up on Rua dos Foros. Where are you?

      • Daniel de Sá says:

        Dear Friend, thank you for the answer. I lived thirty five years in the house on the corner, just next to your grandfather’s. Now I live next the manor house “Solar de Lalém.” I have many friends in your family, like the one that lives now in your grandfather’s house.

        With friendship,

        Daniel de Sá

        • David Leite says:

          Daniel, that is so incredibly touching to hear! And you still live in Maia! I considered, albeit very briefly, buying the house my father grew up in, but it’s now a part of another branch of my family. I will have my parents chime in–perhaps my Dad remembers your family.

          • Daniel de Sá says:

            This is our small World. And do you know who lived in the house just in front of mine until 1907? The grand grandfather of Craig Mello, the one that was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2006. His grandfather was the first child of the family born in USA. Rua dos Foros is a street of great grandfathers, what do you think?

            With friendship,

            Daniel de Sá

            • David Leite says:

              Daniel, I’d have to agree. That street–clearly–was touched by genius and heart. I’ve written my parents to see if they remember your family.

        • Momma and Poppa Leite says:

          Dear Daniel, our son. David, sent us your comments regarding his story about our family and recipes. Thank you for introducing yourself to him. If my memory serves me correctly, your Dad’s name is José Daniel, and you’re the nephew of Lourdes Daniel. I believe your granddad was Mestro Antonio Ganilha.

          How did I do? It’s been many, many years! :)

          Take good care and please give our regards to everyone there who might remember my childhood in Maia and my family.

          God bless you.

          Manny & Elvira Leite

          • Daniel de Sá says:

            Dear Friends Manny and Elvira. Yes, my dear friends, I’m just the one you think. My father, my aunt, and all my uncles were known as “Daniel,” because it was my grandpa’s name. The other grandpa was really mestre António Ganilha, a legendary carpenter. He could do all he wanted with wood or iron. Last Monday I was talking with João da Ponte, brother-in-law of Elvira Leite, and I said something about your son, David. He told me he knows you and some years ago he visited you at your home. Do you remember?

            With friendship,

            Daniel

            • Momma and Poppa Leite says:

              Hello Good Buddy Daniel: In speaking with family members, we believe Joao Da Ponte visited our Brother-in-law Manny Da Ponte Leite in Somerville and not us. Manny Da Ponte Leite is first cousin to Joao Da Ponte. In any event, we’re thankful that we were able to connect after all these years. I’ve not been back to The Azores since I left in 1959. A long time, eh? Thanks again for bringing fond memories to mind. Take good care and thanks for being in touch. David’s website has been a blessing to us in so many ways…….one of them being YOU! God bless you and your family, Manny & Elvira

              Get more deliciousness at Lights, Camera, Recipes: Capturing a Portuguese Family’s Cooking | Leite’s Culinaria

  7. D.O. Couvelha says:

    David – I stumbled onto your Leite’s Culinaria while looking for a recipe for pão de lo. I am in love! Your experience as a Portuguese-American child is so similar to my experience–we could be siblings! I have spent several hours this morning looking at all your recipes and reminiscing about all the sounds, smells, and interactions I grew up with! I am going to the bookstore TODAY to get your book! Thanks for documenting your family history. Just like you, my avó, tias, and mom never used a cookbook, and I never paid attention until it was too late and much of the history was lost. I feel like I just reconnected via your documenting of traditional Portuguese Cuisine! Thanks for bringing me back to all the great memories of my childhood!

    • David Leite says:

      D.O., what a lovely comment to wake up to, thank you. I hope you find many recipes–Portuguese and not–to try here. And thank you for buying the book. If you need anything or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

  8. Jose A. Bettencourt says:

    Dear David,

    Its October 2012, and I just find your article describing your Portuguese-Azorean-American culinary roots. I laughed out loud at the many common traits I share with you as a Portuguese-Azorean-Canadian descendent now living in Italy for the last 17 years. What a delight, the wonderful memories that came to mind and the “saudade” that you brought back to me. Thank you for what you are doing. My roots are from Velas in São Jorge Island, and I was surprised when you mentioned that certain spices where not much used in the Azores. My “avozinha” (Grandmother) and my mother are big on cinnamon. One only needs to think of the S. Jorge desert specialty “espécies,” which is a delicious spicy, doughy filling baked inside a pie crust dough casing in the form of a doughnut or horseshoe “biscuit,” or the well known sweet rice pudding with cinnamon over top. I realize that in the Azores each town is an exception to itself…that is what makes them so fascinating and wonderful. Last July, I was at the parish feast in Maia and enjoyed the welcoming warmth of its people. Thank you for keeping alive the wonderful traditions of this undiscovered paradise. jose a bettencourt

    • David Leite says:

      Jose, well, as they say: Better late than never!

      It is amazing that no matter how different we are, we do shared a special bound by being of Azorean heritage. As you say, each island, town, and family cooks differently. For example, my family does use a lot of herbs and spices, cinnamon, paprika, and bay leaf being the most popular. But we don’t use allspice at all, which is so common on Terceira and in the dish alcatra.

      Come back often, Jose!

    • Daniel de Sá says:

      Dear José Bettencourt and David

      The Azorean gastronomy still reflects three distinct cycles: the cycle before the discovery of African and oriental spices (like “sopas do Império, in Santa Maria, where the meat is cooked only with salt, and after it’s added to the broth with mint and dill – the best meat all over the World, I think…); the cycle of the pepper of African origin, which predominates in São Miguel (until the passing of the first half of twentieth-century, many workers endured whole days only fed on maize bread (broa) and salted peppers, which easily gives the sensation of satiation); and the spices that came from the West, which were more generalized in the islands of the Central Group, probably due to their proximity to the Purveyor’s Office of the Fleets, in the city of Angra (like the famous “alcatra” of Terceira, with different methods of cooking).

      Abraços,

      Daniel

      • David Leite says:

        Prezado colega Daniel,

        Thank you for such a fascinating looking into Azorean food. Tell me, are you a food historian?

        • Daniel de Sá says:

          Dear David

          I am only a writer. But since my childhood I like to know the more I can. A Spanish editor asked me a book about the Azores, and I tried to do it the best way I could. After this, my editor asked me too some books about the islands (Santa Maria, São Miguel and Terceira). Once more, I tried to do my best.

          Here I offer you a true scene of the Impérios (Holy Spirit Feast) of Santa Maria, from my book “Santa Maria, Island Mother.”

          “However, the pantry had a dark, even gloomy look. All the tables were filled up from early morning to late night, sometimes with hungry people, others were just passing by and were picked up by the grabbers, the last on the hierarchy of the “Empire .” Their function was to ascertain that no seat was left vacant on the table, at any given time, even if they had to use force. But alas, miracle oh miracle, there was always enough room on one’s tummy for a good cut of meat, or two, on top of hard slices of bread, soaked by that generous broth, that soon oiled our lips. The table helpers never stopped, making sure everything was in place. They brought in more soups, broth and meat; they walked around the tables filling up the communal cup from where everyone drank. You know how quickly it became greasy! You could see those oily marks from afar. For sure, the Holy Spirit who was being eulogised together with the ‘Emperor’ certainly took care of our health and threw away any misgivings people might have.”

          Abraços,

          Daniel

          • David Leite says:

            Daniel, thank you for sharing that. It’s lovely. And never, ever say you’re just a writer. It’s a noble profession.

  9. Guida Lourenco says:

    I just came across your site and am thoroughly enjoying it all, especially the tidbits on your Portuguese heritage. I was born in Terceira and came to California when I was four. I was lucky enough that my parents settled into a small Portuguese hamlet, and I’ve been able to raise my children in our culture. The picture of your family around the table really spoke to me. I smiled seeing the men on one side and the women on the other, so typical. The dinner table is the center of every Portuguese home ,and a Portuguese mother is at her happiest when feeding her family. The food might be simple but always delicious and abundant, while the laughter and opinions are never in short supply. And yes, we can be loud, but the way I see it, the louder the voices the greater the love. Thanks for sharing.

    • David Leite says:

      My pleasure, Guida. And you hit the nail on the head: The louder the voices the greater the love. And believe it or not, I’ve never noticed that the women were on one side and the men were on the other. Isn’t that odd–my not noticing, I mean.

  10. Barbara says:

    OMG, David! You never cease to amaze me with your wonderfully written tales! As someone above said, this brought me right back to a wonderful time in my own childhood with Vovós and family! Isn’t it a shame the families today have no clue what they are missing out on with the fast food industry and the hurry-it-up attitude! Thank you so much for sharing this with us! God bless you and your family…they did a fantastic job raising you!

    • David Leite says:

      Thank you, Barbara. It is indeed wonderful to have grown up in such a family environment. And it is a shame kids today know so little about their heritage. I’m very happy to be a first-and-a-half-generation Portuguese. It kept me close to my roots.

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