Neu became so apprehensive when my mother was visiting us here, not because of any of the usual “mother in law” jokes or jibes, but because she likes to eat a banana for breakfast. According to Neu’s family, having a banana while drinking coffee will result in nothing short of death. Neu became so unsettled at watching her play Russian roulette every morning, finally she stopped having them together, just so he wouldn’t stress.
There are a plethora of these food taboos here, its hard work keeping up with them all. I often fail miserably, sometimes from ignorance and sometimes just because I, like my mother, happen to like the flavour of coffee with banana (I spare Neu his anxiety by only eating them together when he’s not here to see or specifically, when I go to Fortaleza and visit the fancy Italian ice cream parlour who sell delicious coffee and banana ice cream).
Fish is another area where caution is needed. If you are suffering from any type of infection or wound, there are many fish that should be avoided, they will aggravate your condition (or prove fatal). I unwittingly gave Luan one of these fish the other night, he has been a bit under the weather and I thought a fish we had in the fridge would be ok for him, Neu wasn’t here to ask.
Luan ate the fish and shortly after developed a fever. Now it could be that the two things are unconnected, but later Neu told me that the fish has a reputation of forcing what ever is bad within, to come out. He thought Luan would probably be fine in a couple of days but that his system will be cleaning its self now, causing the fever.
Neu’s mother suffers from diabetes, she cannot eat a whole host of fish, prawns or lobster for fear of making her condition worse. She also cannot eat free range chicken or eggs but she can eat those that are factory farmed (I presume it is due to a risk of salmonella but as my mother in law doesn’t know why she shouldn’t eat them, I can only guess).
Neu also believes you shouldn’t eat ata’s (sweetsop) at the same time as having a drink of milk, fatal (never just might give you a stomach ache, always fatal), drink coffee with melon (as well as bananas), eggs with cashew fruit, mango, in fact most fruit. Eat water melon or cashew nuts while you have a fever or, drink the juice of a fruit called murici while eating the fish cavala, again fatal. I cant understand why anyone would want to eat the fruit murici full stop, these little yellow fruits that grow wild all over the dunes here, are highly loved by just about everybody in the village, I think they are disgusting. My son said they have a sort of cheesy taste, I don’t get that myself but I know what he means.
I don’t dismiss all of these taboos, I’m sure that some are based on reason but a lot are just plain daft. I have asked other people in the village if they share these beliefs, it would seem to be a 50/50 split between those who do and those who don’t (though I admit I haven’t asked the entire 1200 population). I have noticed that the poorer the family, the more of the food taboos apply, perhaps they developed as a way of rationing the nicer foods, not allowing them to be eaten together, who knows. It doesn’t seem to strike anyone as strange, that the half of the village who don’t follow the taboos, are just as healthy (or sick) as those that do.
Some of the taboos are not really taboos at all, just a personal dislike that has been passed on from father to son. My father in law will not eat onions or garlic, he is catholic and I know that at some point the catholic church was against the eating of onions or garlic, said to be food of the devil. Nor will he eat tomatoes, carrots or anything green
Neu, like his father will not willingly eat any of the above either. Both his mother and I put these things into the food on a daily basis, the men quite happily eat it as long as they don’t know. I took to liquidising the vegetables to put in stews for Neu after he got scurvy from a period of not eating anything but fish, rice, pasta and farinha (a bread crumb type accompaniment made from manioc).
Our four year old son tells me he doesn’t like onions, yet he loves his sisters onion rice and went mad over an onion relish he was given in London, preferring it to the sausages (something he loves) that it came with. If I give him something that he has seen onions go into, he will painstakingly remove the pieces.
The village taboos don’t only involve food. The following will make you ill: sitting on warm sand (that pretty much means don’t sit on the sand), going out in the rain in the afternoon (morning is ok), using warm water for washing (solar heated water would be a no no), leaving your flip flops upside down, taking a shower while wearing them or putting them on when they have been in the sun. The sun will give you head lice and going out after dark is an invitation to be attacked by ghosts and werewolves.
There are numerous saints days, during which you shouldn’t work or you will, depending on the saint, go blind, become ill, or meet with great misfortune. Some take the not working to extremes, saying you shouldn’t bath or wash your hair (though these seem to be newly created beliefs as I have never met a person over 20 who believes this).
These saints days often only apply in the village, not Brazil as a whole. Workers in the city have far fewer days off, presumably the saints understand the commercial pressures of city life.
There is a very strong belief in the power of the evil eye. Young children often sport a red wrist band to keep it at bay, and I was advised to put red collars on the dogs for the same reason. When one of our dogs sadly died (it didn’t have a red collar) the health care worker told me I should have taken him to the person in the village who can remove the evil eye. According to the health worker, the dog would have certainly recovered.
We have been experiencing one thing after the other with health or financial problems. I’ve put up a horse shoe and a pentagram, I’m going to get some of the protective plant rue, for removing the evil eye and Neu said he should go to church more often. So while he’s doing that I’m off for a coffee. Anyone want a banana?
©Claire Pattison Valente 2008