Monday, November 14, 2011

In praise of the tavern

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at LeonardoBoff.com.

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
11/11/2011

Because of my "intellectual nomadism", always speaking in many places and environments on many topics ranging from spirituality to environmental responsibility and even about the possibility of the end of our species, the organizers, out of deference, often invite me to a good restaurant in town. Obviously, I keep the good Franciscan tradition and welcome the dishes with positive comments. But I'm always left with a bad taste in my mouth that keeps the meal from being a celebration. I remember that most friends can not enjoy these foods, especially the millions of hungry in the world. It's seems like I'm taking food from their mouths. How can we celebrate the generosity of friends and Mother Earth if, in the words of Gandhi, "hunger is an insult and most deadly form of violence that exists"?

In this context, I am reminded of the comfort of bars or taverns. I like going to taverns because I can eat without a guilty conscience there. They are all over the world, even in the poor communities, where I worked for years. There is a real democracy there; the tavern (where lower income people go) welcomes everyone. A university professor can be there drinking his pint next to a construction worker, an actor at the same table as a crook, and even a drunk having his nip. You just have to get there, go sit down, and shout, "Give me a nice cold pint."

The Brazilian tavern is more than its visual aspect, tiled in bright colors, the patron saint on the wall -- usually a St. Anthony with the Child Jesus in his arms, the symbol of the amateur football team, and colorful beverage ads. The tavern is a state of mind, the place to meet with friends and neighbors, conversation until the wee hours, the argument about the latest soccer game, comments on a favorite novel, criticism of politicians and well-deserved swearing against the corrupt. Soon everyone becomes friends, within an emerging community spirit. Nobody here is rich or poor. They are simply people expressing themselves as people, using the language of the people. There is much humor, jokes and bravado. Sometimes, as in the State of Minas, songs are improvised, accompanied by someone on the guitar.

Nobody cares about the overall condition of the bar or tables. The important thing is that the glass is thoroughly clean and free of grease; otherwise the creamy foam of the pint that should be about three fingers, breaks down. Nobody is bothered by how the floor is, or the state of the bathroom.

The names are quite varied, depending on the region of the country. It may be Adega da Velha, Bar do Sacha, Boteco do Seo Gomes, Bar do Giba, Botequim do Jóia, Pavão Azul, Confraria do Bode Cheiroso, Casa Cheia, and many others. Belo Horizonte is the Brazilian city that has the most taverns, and every year it holds the competition for the best tavern food. The dishes are also varied, usually based on family and regional recipes -- sun-cured meat in the Northeast, pork and tutú (a paste of beans with manioc flour and fried bananas) in Minas. The names are ingenious: mexidoido chapado ("scrambled and stoned"), porconóbis de sabugosa (named after pork and the leaves of a plant called ora pro nobis), costela de Adão ("Adam's rib" -- pork chops with cassava), torresminho de barriga ("belly bacon"). There is a dish I enjoy a lot that is offered at the Central Market of Belo Horizonte and it was given an award in one of the competitions: beef liver with onions and jiló ("scarlet eggplant"). If it were up to me, this dish should be on the menu for the banquet of the kingdom of heaven that the heavenly Father will give for the blessed.

In retrospect, the tavern has a citizenship role: it gives those who go there, especially the most regular, the feeling of belonging to the city or the neighborhood. There being no other places of entertainment and leisure, it allows people to meet, forget their social status, and experience an equality that is generally denied in daily life.

For me, the tavern is a metaphor for Jesus' dream of commensality, a place where everyone can sit at the table, celebrating fraternal coexistence and making a meal, communion. And in my case, it's the place where I can eat without a guilty conscience.

I dedicate this text to my friend Jaguar, a cartoonist who appreciates taverns.

Photo: Leonardo Boff's favorite dish, beef liver with onions and jiló

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