Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is not for the abstinent: detailed recipes of luxurious Brazilian food, interspersed with carnivalesque descriptions of love scenes and frequent complaints about an excessive absence of sex with the beloved one, spice up the life of Dona Flor dos Guimarães (or Florípedes Paiva Madureira, after her second husband). I already know what is swirling around in your heads: is this week’s blog post going to talk about infidelity and carnal pleasures, and are Amy and Nico recommending a rather dubious-sounding book?
Yes, and no.
The novel opens with Dona Flor responding to the writer’s request of getting her recipe for corn cake by discussing her private life, torn between two husbands — one dead, one living. This cake is of course symbolical of Dona Flor herself, as the only thing the two husbands have in common, apart from Dona Flor herself clearly, is love of this special Brazilian corn or manioc cake. She ultimately asks the writer, ‘why one always needs two loves, why one alone does not satisfy the heart?’
Throughout the novel, Dona Flor is divided between the much-felt physical absence of her first, dead husband, Vadinho, a drunkard, a drug addict, a rascal — yet a good lover in the bedroom, and the failed presence of Teodoro Madureira, her second, living husband, a tranquil, rather bland pharmacist — yet sincerely in love with Dona Flor. This division is reconciled by the two husbands’ overlap in Dona Flor’s life, with the dead Vadinho visiting her in the bedroom in ghostly form, to satisfy her earthly appetite, which was left uncomforted after his death, and by her second husband.
The life of Dona Flor, brilliant cook and founder of Salvador do Bahia’s “Escola de culinária Sabor e Arte” (Cooking school Savor and Art), is obviously intertwined with cookery: there are various culinary metaphors (Vadinho’s kisses are like ‘raw onion’, for instance) and every dish she prepares is described in detail by the narrator, and the European reader is left dreaming of superb Brazilian flavours, the tingling taste of coconut with ginger, the aphrodisiac combination of nuts with seafood, the novel texture of unexplored ingredients. Dona Flor results inspiring to all budding cooks: her gentle manners while explaining the recipes, more generally her way of explaining recipes in an accessible way, and the inviting descriptions of her final products make you feel that you, too, reader, perhaps will be able to make such nice dishes as the ones she prepares, one day. One day, her unusual Brazilian recipes (stewed turtle anyone?) will waltz out of your kitchen, and mesmerize your guests. One day, you will also realize that some dishes are better fictional than real. I have always been eager to make Dona Flor’s vatapá, a sensual dish she prepares after her first husband’s death, to remember him, and console her. The recipe is situated in a sensuous stream of consciousness which merges Dona Flor’s thoughts on the main desires of the flesh, lust and gluttony. And so, I had been imagining vatapá, like most dishes, to be appealing to the eyes as well as to the palate: it would conquer and charm friends and lovers, parents and neighbours, in unavoidably equal measure. I would then have two succulent prawns decorate its surface, what best visual reminder of Dona Flor’s marital memories?
The dish came out very tasty, coconut- and shrimps-scented, with its promise of Bahian beaches; yet, it cruelly reminded me I am not Dona Flor, and cannot be. The colour came a little too pale, and not the colourful burst of Carnival I expected; the blended texture, vaguely reminding one of polenta or perhaps American grits, is a tad too unappealing to look at; the prawns eventually came out too white when I blanched them.
I am not Dona Flor, but maybe, that is exactly what the dish has to look like, and cannot possibly look any better: Amado’s novel is, after all, a ‘fearsome battle between spirit and matter’ — Dona Flor’s two husbands ultimately mirror her dual self, everyone’s dualistic personality really, swinging between the two sides’ opposing desires. Amado’s vatapá manages to represent this at its best: while its outward appearance may not be attractive to most, or appealing to the eye, its taste is heavenly — spirit and matter may have fought, but ultimately spirit prevails, in the ineffability of taste, and scent.
Ingredients (feeds 5 people)
150g stale bread
1 large onion
350g fresh, ready cooked shrimps (if using dried shrimps make it a 150-200g)
50g cashew nuts
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups coconut milk mixed with water
25g freshly grated ginger
Olive oil (the Brazilian recipe would require palm oil, but olive oil works just as nicely)
For the fish stock:
2 cod fillets (again, the original recipe would require a fish head)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 large tomato
1 large onion
1 tsp. cumin
1 jalapeno pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
First of all, you need to prepare the fish stock for the vatapá:
- Finely chop the onion, tomato, garlic clove, and coriander.
- Lay in a saucepan with the lemon juice and the fish fillets.
- Season with cumin, salt and pepper, and then add 1 cup of water.
- Cook on low heat (lid on) for about 45 minutes.
- If using cod fillets, blend everything together with an electric blender – if using fish heads, remove the fish head and blend the rest plus the fish head’s flesh.
In the meantime, as you prepare the fish stock, you can start preparing the ingredients for the vatapá:
- Lay the stale bread in a bowl and cover with coconut milk previously mixed with water.
- Finely chop the onion and the shrimps, then heat up some olive/palm oil in a large frying pan and fry them together until golden brown.
- Blend the bread and fry it with the onion and shrimps.
- Blend peanuts and cashew nuts together with coconut milk (and water), grate some ginger and add it to the vatapá, always stirring.
- Add the fish stock to the mixture in the frying pan and keep on stirring.
- Finally, add the remaining coconut milk (no water this time) and stir until the mixture is thick and does not stick to the pan.
- When the vatapá is ready, serve it with a little olive or palm oil.
Jorge Amado. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. A Moral and Amorous Tale. Trans. Harriet de Onís. New York: Avon Books,
Jorge Amado and Paloma Jorge Amado. La cucina di Bahia, ovvero il libro di cucina di Pedro Archanjo e Le merende di dona Flor. Ed. Daniela Ferioli. Turin: Einaudi, 1994.