Shipwrecked on New England’s Shore

Complex editor Nick Schonberger learns a thing or two about Iberian cuisine at sea.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There will always be that one glorious dish that is near and dear to your heart, a food that is synonymous with satisfaction and perfection. We asked our friends in the food and editorial world to write #FoodOdes to the dishes that they love. Here, an ode to Iberian bread soup and Pork Alentejana, from Complex editor Nick Schonberger (@nschon).

For a brief stint in the middle of the aughts, I lived above a library in downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts. The space, called “the scholar’s quarters,” housed visiting researchers to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a couple of interns, and one Curatorial Fellow (i.e. me). Though vast in square footage, the situation was fraught with hurdles—sear meat or run a shower too hot and the institution’s super sensitive alarm system sent the entire city’s fire department through the door in minutes (questioning, of course, the legality of the whole enterprise). Then there were the fellow lodgers.

Most present in my memory is an elderly fellow from the Azores. The descendant of the last great whaling captain—historically, New Bedford-based ships stocked up on crew in the Azores—his official task was to document grave sites related to the whaling industry. He spent the majority of his time cooking, and as a byproduct teaching me a little about Portuguese food.

Here is an excerpt from an email I wrote my brother in 2005:

Yesterday was full of brief and somewhat worrisome interaction. I woke early to find him in shorts and stockings cooking. “Do you agree to eat soup tonight, Mr. Schonberg?” Sure, why not. It was a little early to make such a major decision, but I find it impossible to turn down his good will. He reminded me that I had an auction catalog in my office that he wished to look at. I promised to bring it by at lunch. “You are an angel.” Little do you know sir, I thought as I responded, “No worries, it is my pleasure.” When I returned at lunch, catalog in hand, I was lauded again as a great man. Ego boost. I was offered a sneak preview of the soup, with the warning that it could make me a bit gassy. Thanks for the warning sir, and for not sabotaging my afternoon. In the end, the soup was good and I was forced to eat two bowls, lest I never live as long as him. He again apologized for the gas I would later have. He then told me that I should sleep with an Italian woman at least once in my life. “Their cheese is no good, but the women very tasty.” I agreed whole heartily. We then discussed the great cheeses of the French Alps and I conceded that I felt most comfortable in areas where I am allowed to carry a few extra pounds as insulation. Then I helped him watch a dvd slide show.

After that I retired to my cabin (he believes we live on a ship) and did some reading. Soon after I got up to relieve myself only to catch an unfortunate glimpse of my new friend with no trousers on. Gross. Sweet dreams aborted.

The soup was a variation of a classic Portuguese bread soup. It’s remarkably basic—essentially requiring only boiling water, eggs, garlic, and stale bread—the Iberian version of chilaquiles. It was the beginning—a gateway drug—of an affair with a cuisine irregularly considered in America. Pork and clams at the same damn time!? Yes, Portugal meets America with its own version of “red sauce” and it is fucking awesome.

These dishes defined a period of my life. They also pushed forward my thinking about food, demanding critical analysis not just of preparation but of heritage as well.

The world’s foremost authorities on whaling descended on us for the museum’s Whaling History Symposium. We ate Pork Alentejana from Antonio’s on Coggeshall Street. The dish, made of pork tenderloin sautéed in garlic and tomato and topped with littlenecks and crisp, fried potatoes changed my life. Here I was, a young man recently decorated with an MA and working in a sort-of-remote fishing town, eating a meal that spoke to the very history we were celebrating in our institution. For my shipmate, it was tangible evidence of the changes brought to the Southcoast by his migrating family. For me, the salty morsels rooted my adventure—more important, each bite reminded me why I was there in the first place.

I’d moved to New Bedford for a simple reason: Maritime history requires—no, it demands—interaction with each constituent part of a culture. Toss out fancy philosophy about material culture, in the sea you get the truth. Everything blends, each source adds an important layer in understanding what happened aboard the ship, and what came to land through movement and trade over vast bodies of water.

Bread soup and Pork Alentejana represent how food is prepared in two very different times. There are lean days, and there are balls-out moments of celebration. There are classics confirmed by generations of people carving a space for themselves in the land of plenty. And, there are classics created out of necessity—reminders that before broke-ass college students reached for packages of ramen, struggling sailors turned meager holdings into inventive, nourishing meals.

These dishes defined a period of my life. They also pushed forward my thinking about food, demanding critical analysis not just of preparation but of heritage as well. These are the dishes that changed my intellectual engagement with food.

History matters. The trajectory of a flavor, the development of a process, and the articulation of a community all are intertwined in food. Each of us will find something that unveils this universal truth at some point. I simply found it in a haphazard living arrangement and through a kind-of-creepy old dude who offered dubious advice but inadvertently served up one of life’s great lessons.

Newsletter

Feed your inbox.

Subscribe