Story and photos by Lindsay Sterling
The man delivering my new bed had a foreign accent. I asked where he was from. “Cape Verde,” Alberto said, pleasantly surprised. Perhaps no delivery recipient had ever asked him that. Cape Verde is a group of ten volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa. Alberto came here to the U.S. to find work. He is happy how things turned out. He said he would be glad to teach me a dish from Cape Verde for Immigrant Kitchens, but he thought I should really cook with his cousin, who was an amazing cook. He gave me both of their phone numbers and drove off in a truck with the logo on it: “Brilliant Move.”
Alberto’s cousin, Clarice, spoke so little English that I wondered if we’d manage to connect. I thought she told me to meet her at her sister’s house at a certain address in Brockton, Massachusetts, on Sunday at 10:00am. I worried that a miscommunication would lead to a day of driving with nothing to show for it but a shrinking ozone layer. During the drive I listened to various radio stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts broadcasting updates about tragedies in mostly black neighborhoods with white police officers. The stories were making me profoundly disappointed in the human race.
I came upon the house with the right address. It was a neat cape on a suburban street tightly fit with houses. I was so happy to see Clarice with a gap-toothed smile waving me in. She was short with black hair. Her skin was darker than mine but lighter than her cousin Alberto’s. In the next four hours, Clarice and her sister Lucy filled ten glass baking dishes with salt cod casseroles, stewed calamari, lasagna, and spaghetti. These were their dinners for the week, ready to be simply heated and served after Clarice and Lucy got home from their jobs at the plastic bag factory. Hope grew in my heart that one day I could be so organized and efficient.
In the middle of cooking, Clarice showed me more food in the fridge that they’d already prepared before I got there: grilled pork ribs; fried rice with duck, corn, and mussels; and a famous black bean and pork dish called feigoada. I was in awe. These women were my idols. They were amazing cooks, totally organized, with ‘ready made awesome food available for their families and friends at all times. Clarice microwaved plates of the duck and the feigoada for me for lunch. They were out of this world.
I watched them make the bacalhau com natas (potato and salt cod casserole). They sautéed a mixture onions, tomato, cilantro, garlic, yellow and red pepper, five seasoning blends by Goya and Knorr brands, white pepper, Cajun spice, salt cod, and cooked potatoes. Then they put the mixture in a baking dish, decorated the top with green olives and slices of hard boiled egg, poured béchamel sauce over everything, and baked it in the oven until top turned golden brown.
I couldn’t believe when they sent me home with a whole salt cod casserole and a lasagna for my family. On the ride home, the news kept spewing sad racial tension while casseroles filled my car with a kind of Cape Verdean love.
By the time I got home late that evening, my family was tired and hungry. The light went on about the lesson Clarice and her sister had taught me that day: cook ahead of time. I pulled out the already prepared salt-cod casserole. “Clarice and her sister from Cape Verde made it for us,” I said, feeling a surge of connection and gratitude. The human race could be downright amazing, too.