June 30, 2011

Portuguese Festa in Modesto, California

Having grown up in the Central Valley of California, the bi-annual Portuguese celebration called festa (also known as Holy Ghost Celebration) was always something that I was aware of, but only attended a couple of times when I was lucky enough to get invited as a guest by a Portuguese friend. As a child, I remember parties that lasted into the wee hours of the night, beautifully adorned women wearing elaborate crowns and sparkly dresses, and of course the food. I can still remember the local community hall filled with men in cowboy boots and large hats lining up for the feast piled high on the long tables. Festa is such a spectacular (but fairly unknown) event, and I was very much looking forward to attending again as an adult and sharing it with the America Eats community.

The festa celebration involves many traditions including parades, feasts, candlelight processions, the crowning of festa queens, and concludes dramatically with a bloodless bullfight.  My focus, however, was on the sopa!  Although sopa is just a very simple soup-like dish, it embodies the spirit of the entire celebration.   When Portuguese people immigrated to the U.S. (mainly the Central Valley of California, San Diego, and the New York area) they brought many of their customs and traditions.  Among those traditions was festa. The story of its origins go like this… (appropriated from flyer about the festivities)

It all began hundreds of years ago in 1296 when Queen Isabel of Agagao, wife of King Diniz of Portugal, saw her subjects suffering from the effects of a devastating drought followed by a long famine. Thousands of people died during those years. Wells ran dry, and food began to get scarce.

Portugal’s Queen Isabel did all she could for her people during that time. There is a tradition that shows her, always with red roses in one hand and a small loaf of bread in the other. This stems from her habit of taking bread from the palace and secretly passing it to the poor and hungry. One day the king found out about it and confronted her. When she opened her apron to reveal the stolen bread, a miracle had occurred. For instead of bread, a bunch of red roses fell to the floor. Her generosity and love for her people had been honored by God.

Masses were said continuously during a nine-day novena until the day of Pentecost when the people witnessed three ships sail up the harbor and docked in Lisbon. These ships were filled with grain. Their hunger was finally at an end. It also began to rain, after several years of drought. This was considered to be a major miracle.

In thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit for this miraculous deliverance, the day of the Pentecost was declared to be a national holiday. This holiday persisted in Portugal for several centuries before being exported to the Azores Islands, and onto our community in Modesto.

When Portuguese people migrated to California and the East Coast, they brought the Holy Ghost Celebration with them, introducing it to their American neighbors. Queen Isabel was canonized by Pope Urban the Eighth in 1625. Her devotion to her people was symbolized by the promise she made to the Holy Spirit that if her people were delivered from the famine and drought, she would lay her jeweled crown on the altar as a gift to the church.

Father Francisco Dimiz (shown on right) from Lisbon, Portugal enjoys a piece of fresh bread and butter before the sopa was served. Dimiz came to Modesto to bless the sopa and take part in the celebration.

In order to honor Queen Isabel’s generosity, the community makes sopa for three meals a day, for duration of the festa weekend–Friday through Sunday.  These meals are provided for free to everyone who wants to attend.  On the day I was there the local Portuguese-American association served over 5,000 people throughout the course of the day.

The atmosphere in the hall was lively and jovial.  The cooks were all men who clearly had sopa running through their veins.  This is a tradition that they have all grown up with and something they look forward to all year long.  The kitchen was thick with the smell of cabbage and beef and was as sweltering as a southern summer day.  Portuguese was the dominant language spoken in the room, and a healthy dose of red wine was being passed around the kitchen.  The men had all been preparing for and cooking the meal for over a week, and yet they were in amazing spirits and incredibly happy to be providing this service to the community.

So what is sopa exactly?  When I asked one of the cooks what the ingredients were, he laughed and said to me, “you know, cabbage, water, beef.”  When I pressed further for what exactly was included in the soup, he just smiled and claimed that that’s all there was to it.  Upon further investigation I found a recipe that seems pretty close to the actual ingredients I saw in the kitchen.


4 tbsp. pickling spice
Soup meat (any kind of meat, usually beef)
4 cloves garlic, minced
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
3 (8 oz. each) cans tomato sauce
1 head cabbage
1 loaf French bread
Fresh mint

The Process:

In tea strainer boil pickling spices along with soup meat (cut into small pieces), garlic, salt, pepper and tomato sauce. Simmer 3 hours. Before you serve, boil cabbage (cut in 1/8ths) and drain. Slice bread and sprinkle with very little of cinnamon. In bowls – layer bread, cabbage, sopas, and top with mint. Makes a lot.

Large bowls prepared with slices of french bread and sprigs of mint

Festas happen in many cities throughout America, predominately in May/June and December/January.  They are not widely publicized, however the events are open to the public.  Being non-Portuguese myself, I felt welcomed with open arms and I would suggest that everyone attend a festa if you have the opportunity.  It’s a great place for families to come together and reconnect.  Here are the best resources I found to locate details about when and where festas are taking place.



May 1, 2011

Los Angeles Grilled Cheese Invitational

On Saturday, April 23rd, Los Angeles saw it’s greatest showcase ever of what could be done with three simple ingredient: bread, butter, and cheese.  The 2nd, 8th annual Grilled Cheese Invitational took place in downtown Los Angeles to great fanfare.  Founder Tim Walker started the event in 2003 with a bunch of buddies to determine who made the most delectable gilled cheese.  The tradition continued and each year it drew more and more admirers.  This year the gates opened at 11am, and the line to get in was already wrapped around three full city blocks!  Angelenos were chomping at the bit to get their hands on the ultimate comfort food.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

What the throngs of people found inside the gates did not disappoint.  From traditional, to ridiculous, to elegant, visitors to the CGI were able to experience sandwiches (or “sammies” as they were frequently called there) that ran the entire gamut.  There were stalls of vendors supplying whole or half sandwiches for purchase for 3-8 dollars, and Tillamook donated a free sample classic grilled cheese sandwich for every attendee.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

In addition to sammie vendors, there were “cheesy” bands playing such classics as Tom Jones and Neil Diamond, cheese-themed poetry, a costume contest, and Iron Chef style celebrity grilled cheese cook-offs.  Irony was served up by the pound along with the gooey sandwiches.  The main attraction of the event was the grilled cheese competition.  Chefs of every background competed for the title in four different categories…

Love, American Style – White bread, butter, orange cheese (American or Cheddar). NOTHING ELSE.

The Missionary Position – Any type of bread, butter and cheese. NO ADDITIONAL INGREDIENTS.

The Kama Sutra – A sandwich of the savory nature, with any type of bread, butter and cheese PLUS additional ingredients, and the interior ingredients must be at least 60% cheese.

The Honey Pot – Any kind of bread, any kind of butter, and any kind of cheese, and the interior ingredients of the sammich must be at least 60% cheese, PLUS additional ingredients, and with an overall flavor that is sweet and would best be served as dessert.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

Judges from the public decided the winner in each category, but before they underwent the hardship of tasting all of the entries, they were sworn to uphold the honor and dignity of the competition.  The judges were asked by the master of ceremonies to hold up both hands and recite a series of nonsensical lines about gouda and the rules and regulations when it comes to taking bribes.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

There were four heats, each about 50 minutes long, and awards were given for first place in both the professional and amateur categories.  To see the full list of winners, check out the Grilled Cheese Invitational’s website.  Noted chef Mark Peel (as seen on Top Chef Masters) was one of the guest judges for the event.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

One of the best parts about the event was all of the free stuff!  As mentioned before, Tillamook gave out free classic sandwiches, but in addition to that there was free water, free pickles, and free soda.  Everything a cheese-lover needs to complete a meal.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

Among the vendors the guests got to sample were such creations as an open-faced, burrata, cherry tomato, pine nuts, and parsley pesto (seen above) from Campanile, “Ruby Canard” consisting of duck confit, truffled chevre, and red onion marmalade on a rosemary bread from Cynthia Washburn, and “Chicken N. Waffle Melt” with sharp cheddar, fried chicken between two waffles, served with a side of gravy and syrup from The Grilled Cheese Truck #2.  Needless to say the afternoon was filled with creative ways to enjoy the classic bread, butter, and cheese.   My stomach still aches thinking about all of the amazing things that I wasn’t able to try.

GCI, Grilled Cheese Invitational, Los Angeles, 2011

Mac and cheese with BBQ pork sandwich

April 19, 2011

SLO Farmer’s Market: Community Over Commerce

San Luis Obispo, SLO, farmers' market,

In the past ten years farmers’ markets have become as ubiquitous as the corner Starbucks. Once relegated to old ladies shopping for vegetables in farming communities, farmer’s markets have now become the place where people of all ages gather to shop, eat, and hang out. The young and hip ritualistically flock to markets like the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. This trend is not just happening in major cities. Nearly every town has a farmer’s market at least part of the year.

All farmer’s markets are a benefit to their communities, but how have some been able to transcend the doldrums of simply selling fruits and veggies to becoming a place where people will drive from miles around to join in the communal festivities? Whether its the music, the food, or the community spirit, one city that has figured out the magic formula to putting on a rocking farmers’ market is San Luis Obispo, California.

Located almost exactly between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is home to Cal Poly University and a large farming community. The market is held on Thursday nights throughout the year from 6 to 9 pm, and boasts stalls of vendors 10 blocks long! Thousands of people come out each Thursday for what turns out to be a weekly community block party. There are communal tables for eating and a fair-like atmosphere with musicians, performers, and lots and lots of street food.

SLO, San Luis Obispo, farmers' market, thursday, lemonade

SLO, San Luis Obispo, farmers' market, thursday, F. McLintocks

SLO, San Luis Obispo, farmers' market, BBQ, Thursday, F. McLintocks

SLO, San Luis Obispo, farmers' market, thursday, BBQ

SLO, Farmers' Market, San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly

San Luis Obispo, SLO, Farmers' market, plant vendor
SLO Farmers' Market Overview

January 24, 2011

America Eats: The Original

“American cookery and the part it has played in the national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also attitudes and customs.”

-excerpt from the original 1939 memo stating the goal of America Eats

america, 1940s, food, culture, gatherings, eventsAmerica, 1940s, food, culture, gatherings, events


During the Great Depression the federal government put thousands of artists to work including such notable painters as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.  They sponsored many programs to get people in all fields working again, including writers.  Near the end of the Depression, in 1939, Katherine Kellock of the Florida Writer’s Project proposed the idea of working on a documentation of American food culture with a strong “social and anthropological component.”  This project was to be completed by writers across the country and then compiled into a single book that would serve as a written snapshot of American food culture at that moment.

By imposing very few constraints on the type of writing they were looking for, editors for America Eats received poems, short stories, and even some brief anecdotes with no byline. Several publishers including Houghton Mifflin were interested in publishing America Eats, and the deadline for the writers to send in their work to be included in the book was set for December 3, 1941.  On December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked, and all focus was shifted to the war effort.  Ultimately in February of 1943 the government body in charge of America Eats was shut down, and the project was never completed.  The writings were boxed up and most were sent to the Library of Congress where they would sit undiscovered for another 50 years.   When the boxes were finally unearthed by writer Mark Kurlansky the stacks of paper measured almost two feet high of un-edited, raw manuscript.  The original idea was that the writings would be accompanied by line drawings, but in addition to the writings there were 26 photographs that were sent in (two of those original images are seen above).


America, 1940s, food, culture, gatherings, events, Pat Willard, book

Mark Kurlansky, America Eats, Great Depression, events, writings, book

Kurlansky went on to edit the manuscripts that he found and compile them into the book The Food of a Younger Land. It is a great read and includes his selections of the best stories from the project along with additional context and historical information to help guide the reader.

Another text that was made from this discovery is Pat Willard’s America Eats! In this book Willard has retraced the steps of some of the original authors and has taken her own journey across the country using the unpublished manuscript as her guide.

If you are interested in our project, these books provide the inspiring stories from which our adventure began.  More info about the original project may also be heard on NPR by clicking here.


As America Eats was being packaged into boxes, Merle Colby, one of the editors who stayed on until the very end to make sure the materials were taken care of wrote in her final report…

“Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble upon this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”


Katie and I have indeed caught fire and we hope that our visual exploration of this project makes Mrs. Colby and everyone who has ever worked on America Eats proud.

October 27, 2010

Outstanding in the Field, Hollywood, CA

On Sunday we had the opportunity to hang out with Jim Denevan and his crew at their Outstanding in the Field event at Wattles Farm in the middle of Hollywood. Katie and I were there the whole day and were able to shoot the entire process of serving their 140 guests. A full account of the event as well as more photos and even a time lapse(!!) of the process of set-up to break down will be posted by the end of the week. This is just a little sneak peak.

October 25, 2010

Birds of a Feather

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The America Eats Project is all about promoting the consumption of food that is grown as locally and sustainably as possible.  In our personal lives, Katie and I try and live by that same ideal.  One way that we do this is by raising our own backyard chickens.  Currently we have four (Bella, Penny, Basil, and Acorn), and they each produce one delicious egg per day.  In addition to their incredible eggs, they are also among the most entertaining pets I’ve ever had.

We’ve had several chickens over the past year and the slideshow above shows some images of our ladies throughout our process of having them as babies, getting them a home, and now laying their delectable treats.  We feed them our leftover wilted organic greens and pretty much anything else you can imagine.  They especially love cottage cheese and when we bring them worms from the local bait shop.  I love our chickens and would encourage everyone to get a pair.  They dispose of leftover food items, fertilize your yard, provide eggs, and are more stimulating than TV.  What’s not to love?