The Jesus Rule

A comic book cover with Jesus pointing at the reader and fisherman in the background. title: 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.


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.

Video: "Operator" sung by The Manhattan Transfer
Video courtesy of Jazz Vault

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 signature

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Comments

  1. The first time a friend dropped a piece of food on the floor, picked it up, and ate it, I was appalled! Then he told me he was strengthening his immune system. I rather liked that, and have adopted that philosophy… quietly, when cooking alone, where no one can see me. LOL

  2. I loved your story, David!

    I truly understand it! My grandmother used to give us “treats” right up to our mouths. As I grew older I noticed she would do this with ashes on her hands and soot on her arms from working the wood oven. I didn’t have the heart to say anything but when we came to visit I’d warn my sister and brother to say they were full and not to eat from grandma’s hands. One day when my grandmother was trying to offer my brother a cookie he said, “I really want that cookie grandma, but Ilda said I shouldn’t eat from your hands cause they’re always dirty”…Jesus came to this story too but in a different way…

    That was then, and now it’s even worse…friends of mine encouraged me to take the food handler course when I couldn’t work nor cook as my hand was in a cast. They still tell me how sorry they were that they suggested it…apparently it “created a monster”…the thing is, once you learn something, you just can’t unlearn it. I’m with “The One” and it’s not Jesus…Beijinho!

  3. We always “kissed it up to God” it would drop, we would quickly pick it up, kiss it, then raise to God. Italian family, but not sure where it came from…but always did it. Well…depending on exactly where it dropped.

  4. My Portuguese mother did something similar. She would pick up the morsel, dust it off, and “kiss it up to God.” And she did wash the floor every day. I am now 83, so …

  5. Great story! I thought my vovo was the only one that drank (coffee) from an “odd” cup. She used a small mixing bowl, thumb curled over the lip, and 3 fingers supporting the bottom. She liked coffee.

    1. Thanks, scott. Let me ask you: was your grandmother from the mainland or the Azores? Because of the tea plantation on São Miguel, which is where my family is from, everybody drinks tea.

      1. She and my grandfather were from Faial.

        She was not a typical grandmother by any stretch. She worked in the weaving mills and was a union leader in the 50’s going to Boston and Washington for union conventions. She was very active in Fall River politics, dragging me around to the polls, where she and I handed out cards at the age of 3 and 4!

        Could be where the love of coffee came from!

  6. I think I am the lucky one here because David and I were friends in high school and hung out at his home often. My favorite memory was learning “The Hustle” in your living room and I vividly remember looking down at your Earth Shoes trying to follow you.

    I remember Vovo…(and Duke)…I never understood anything she (or Duke) said, but because she was his grandmother (and his dog) they were OK with me. From now on when an ingredient falls on the floor, I will warmly remember her (and you) and let my heart and face smile.

    Thank you for that, Mr. Leite.

    1. My dearest Mr. Martin, I remember that, too! As well as so many of the goofy stuff we used to do–at my house and at yours, with Tom and Robie! Those are very treasured memories, my dear friend.

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