The Jesus Rule

Most people are familiar with the Five-Second Rule: If you accidentally drop a piece of food on the floor while cooking and pick it up within five seconds, you and your immune system are no worse for the wear.

Some particularly anxious and OCDish folks opt for the ambitious Three-Second Rule.

Then there’s the Chef-In-Need-of-Anger-Management Rule, which doesn’t involve an accident at all. This happens when you send back your food because it’s under- or over-cooked; not what you expected; too soggy, dry, small, or big, etc. Back in the kitchen, the chef allows your dinner to “fall” to the floor—or, if he’s in a particularly athletic mood or hasn’t taken his meds, hurls it against the wall—and only after it slumps, beaten and bruised to the floor, does he prettily replate it for your dining enjoyment. (Be a waiter long enough, and you’ll see just about everything.)

And then there’s the Jesus Rule. A rule created by my grandmother, Vovó Costa, and shared only with me. Its power comes from its provenance: Whenever food fell on the floor, Vovó would pick it up, rinse it, give it a kiss, and chirp at it in Portuguese, “Jesus loves you!” Content it had been absolved of all its earthy filth and sin, she’d toss the philistine bit back into the pot.

To Vovó, Jesus was the original Mr. Clean.

As seemingly simple as the rule is–a tiny old woman benevolently kissing chunks of her carne assada or chouriço-studded stuffing called recheio–there were lesser rules folded within exceptions to her divinity rule.

A grid of Portuguese Carne Assada on the left and Stuffing on the right.
For example, the Good Book says that time is eternal in the presence of God–a belief my grandmother apparently also upheld in her kitchen. If dinner was a good three or four hours off and a morsel had a fall from grace from the counter, she was in no rush to pick it up. Partly because she was in her seventies, partly because she made up the rule. Five, 10, 30 seconds could pass before she’d bend over, with a grunt only a plump septuagenarian with a bad knee could utter, and scoop it up. And if she were sitting down, sipping her hot sweet Lipton’s tea out of her favorite mug–a plastic sherbet container from the supermarket–it would just have to wait until she was good and ready (and probably jacked up on all that sugar) before she redeemed the morsel from its state of bardo.

Avo (Vovo) Costa and Me

Another wrinkle: She and only she could do the Beijinho Blessing. If I happened to have been stirring a pot for her, as I often did, and she saw a hunk ‘o meat pop-fly out and land between my feet, she’d hip check me out of the way to grab it first. Then came her puckered peck, a flick of her thumb, and the newly cleaned and baptized bite was back into what would eventually become our dinner. Only our dog Duke, whom Vovó adored, was not beholden to her rule. (Personally, I think he was too fast for her.) He could snatch up as many fallen pieces as he could find, but not before she tossed out a benediction. Sort of a Blessing of the Animals, Costa-style.

Unlike Duke, if I were quick enough to swoop down and grab it first, she’d slap my hand hard so that it would fall on the floor again. Up would go a menacing index finger, cocked not unlike a pistol, invisibly pinning me against the counter. She’d crouch down, let out a howl from her knee pain, all the while pointing and not taking her eyes off me. Only after her invocation of the Jesus Rule, did she morph from thug back to grandmother.

It made me wonder if she was trying to work off some badass karma I had no idea she’d accrued in life. (Is there such a thing as a Portuguese Vovó Mafia?) Or perhaps she had some direct dial into the Almighty that none of us was aware of–not unlike what the Manhattan Transfer has been harmonizing about for 45 years.

This morning, I asked Mama Leite if she recalled Vovo’s peculiar Jesus Rule, and she looked at me for a good long time, as if she was trying to remember.

Then finally, “I don’t know where you get this imagination of yours.” As I walked away she added, “Don’t go putting any of that stuff on that blog of yours. Everyone will think your grandmother was a dirty cook.”

Nowadays, when I drop something while cooking, I stop and think of my grandmother. I like to pretend it’s Vovó saying hello. Or, if I’m making one of her dishes, a reminder I’ll never cook better than her. I then bend over and let out a grunt, not unlike hers, and pick it up. With the acrobatic mouthful in my fingers, The One threatens pain of death if I kiss it and toss it back. In defiance, I just eat it, with immensely exaggerated pleasure, which grosses him out even more.

Where others see dirt, I see divinity.

David Leite's handwritten signature of 'David.'

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. “…with a grunt only a plump septuagenarian with a bad knee could utter…”

    David, thank you for my post-Hallowe’en, post-time change scream of laughter.

    And I love how now you, too, are uttering same grunt.

    May the circle be unbroken.

    Reminds me of the time, years ago, I ordered a plate of Alfredo and as I began to fork it up, discovered the little waxed-paper topper of a butter pat hidden underneath. Knew immediately where that Alfredo had been, and left promptly, never to return.


  2. I’m pretty sure the origin of this reverence for bread is the fact that it is turned into Jesus’s flesh in holy communion, and this is probably why no reader from a Protestant background commented that they are aware of this practice.

    1. Interesting, Kat. And maybe my people, most of whom were punishingly poor, just extended that to all foods.

  3. Greeks grandmothers do it, too, at least when it comes to bread–you NEVER throw bread away! Older generations, having seen great hunger, had a huge respect for food, especially bread. I’m glad I had someone pass it on to me…Greetings from Athens!

    1. Hello, Kat from Athens! I just love hearing what I thought was a family quirk to be something much larger. It’s amazing how my grandmother, who was raised on a tiny island marooned in the middle of the Atlantic, pick up a habit practiced by grandmothers in Athens!