By Kendra Murray.
Residents from all walks of life call the Whaling City home. Its unique blend of cultures makes New Bedford special. However, there is one culture that gives New Bedford its particular identity: Portuguese.
Growing up on the outskirts of New Bedford, I was no stranger to Portuguese culture and food. My family frequented Portuguese restaurants for dishes like shrimp mozambique, pork alentejana, and carne espeto. If we were feeling adventurous, we might start with a chouriço à bombeiro (flaming chourico). These meals were hearty and bursting with delicious flavors like garlic, paprika, and crushed red pepper, and they were full of comfort.
Despite being half Azorean myself and really relishing our Portuguese dinners out on the town, we didn’t really eat Portuguese cuisine at home, aside from linguica and sweet bread. Ironically, the only time I ever really recall eating traditional Portuguese food is when my English great-grandmother would make kale soup. Aside from that, traditional Portuguese dishes were reserved for evenings out— always a treat!
A few years ago, I was given a cookbook, Azorean Cooking: From My Table to Yours, by Maria Lawton. I started making some of the recipes I had always enjoyed in restaurants. Bringing those flavors into my home and sharing them with family and friends was especially enjoyable because many of my noshers came from the same background I did: they enjoyed Portuguese cuisine cooked by others and in restaurants, but never prepared it in their own homes.
I recently caught up with Maria to talk a little bit about her cookbook, her TV show, Maria’s Portuguese Table, and growing up as a Portuguese immigrant in New Bedford. It was so fun to walk down memory lane with her. Maria inspired me to learn more about my own Azorean heritage.
When Maria was six years old, her family made the journey to Massachusetts from Sao Miguel, the biggest island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago. Because of its large Portuguese population, New Bedford made a desirable place to put down roots. Her uncle was the first to emigrate, followed by her grandparents, and then Maria and her parents and sisters. With such a large Portuguese community in Southeastern Massachusetts, it wasn’t absolutely necessary for adult immigrants to learn English, but as a child, Maria went to school and learned the language of her adopted home.
Her parents understood English, but Maria was much more fluent, so she would often be her mother’s voice. This might mean complaining at the market about a product purchased that was unsatisfactory, and making sure that her mother’s emotions were felt through her own voice. Doing this at a young age helped her develop into the strong woman she is today.
Maria’s father had an agrarian background and brought that experience to New Bedford. Their small backyard was transformed into a garden, overflowing with fresh collards, watercress, parsley, and scallions. (Collards are what is traditionally used in kale soup—not kale!—but kale was more readily available than collards in America. What we call kale soup or sopa de couve was traditionally called caldo verde—green soup).
Maria was taught to cook seasonally, and that is still important to her. Nowadays, she grows some of her own herbs and leaves the rest to local farmers. Although Maria no longer has a large garden herself, she does love to garden. She mentioned an almost spiritual need to “put her hands in the dirt” whenever she travels to the Azores. If the opportunity arises, she will go out to the family farm with her cousin and take time to connect with the earth, where her food comes from, and appreciate the soil and the hands that grow the food.
Her parents’ traditions are still especially important to Maria and her family, and they are the reason she wrote a cookbook and began to share Azorean recipes with the world. She wanted to pass these traditions on to her daughters but realized there weren’t really any Azorean cookbooks written in English. Her mother did not often write down recipes, so Maria relied on her sister, who frequently cooked with their mother, to teach her these dishes, as well as Azorean aunts and cousins who helped her to recreate some of the recipes she had enjoyed as a child. Maria’s cookbook has brought joy to many who experienced Portuguese cooking growing up, but whose parents and grandparents may have taken their recipes to their graves. She feels that recipes should be shared among families and friends; there is no point in having a “secret recipe.” It’s important to have these recipes available to everyone, as not everyone is lucky enough to live in a city filled with Portuguese restaurants and culture!
In addition to her cookbook, Maria is also the host of a PBS cooking and travel series, Maria’s Portuguese Table. In this television show, Maria travels the world exploring Portuguese culture and cuisine. Filming for season two was supposed to begin this year, and Maria was also scheduled to host a cooking tour in collaboration with PBS and AAA, but the pandemic put things on hold. She began hosting weekly live videos online instead, engaging a large community.
MAY 2021 BREAKING NEWS: “Maria’s Portuguese Table” PBS series has been picked up by a distributor and they will be offering the series to All PBS Stations in the USA.
These live video events have created a tight-knit community. Despite not knowing one another, Maria feels close to her audience, and they in turn are really supportive of each other, asking and answering questions. During a time of physical distance, a large group of strangers are coming together over food and culture.
For those who may have already discovered and cooked their way through Azorean Cooking: From My Table to Yours, you are in for a new treat! Maria is working on a second cookbook, filled with even more delicious Portuguese recipes.
Look here for Maira’s recipe for stewed peas with poached eggs. Everyone has chickens in the Azores, so eggs are a common way to add an additional protein punch to any meal.
Online feature: find Maria Lawton’s Azorean recipe for Canja (as pictured on our front cover) here.
Kendra Murray is no stranger to delicious Portuguese cuisine! This spring she’ll be preparing her garden beds for summer and harvesting collards for her sopa de couve (kale soup).