Darwin and the Voyage: 05 ~ South America on Five Dollars a Day

What do you eat when you are traveling the world in search of truth about the natural world? Most of the time Darwin ate pretty well...

While traveling through the interior near Rio, Darwin makes note of some of the agricultural practices of the region. He is visiting farms ... plantations .. carved out of the forest.

The chief produce of this part of the country is coffee. Each tree is supposed to yield annually, on an average, two pounds; but some give as much as eight. Mandioca or cassada is likewise cultivated in great quantity.

... that would be Manihot, or cassava, also known as Yucca and in Central Africa, Mohogo. This is the elongated sometimes quite large root usually covered with wax that you can get in any US grocery store that caters to an Hispanic clientèle, or lately, in African markets.

Every part of this plant is useful: the leaves and stalks are eaten by the horses, and the roots are ground into a pulp, which, when pressed dry and baked, forms the farinha, the principal article of sustenance in the Brazils.

Indeed, the leaves, processed correctly (with palm oil added) make one of the great culinary dishes ever. But, only certain leaves and they must be fresh. I've heard there are places in France or Belgium where you can get this prepared from the Congo and frozen, then shipped to Europe, but that this is intermittent. Otherwise, as far as I know, you have to be there ... at the farm .... to eat this dish that looks, but does not taste, like cooked spinach. (It is called "Sombe" in the Congo.)

It is a curious, though well-known fact, that the expressed juice of this most nutritious plant is highly poisonous. A few years ago a cow died at this Fazênda, in consequence of having drunk some of it.

As with many roots, there is a poison form. For Cassava, the poison form is how it comes out of the ground for most varieties. If it is not processed correctly with soaking, cooking, pounding, etc. (depending on the variety) then it is dangerous to eat.

The kind you get in the grocery store is called "sweet" ... and as far as I know you need only to cook it. I've never gotten sick on it. But, I always change the water at least once while boiling it up.

Senhôr Figuireda told me that he had planted, the year before, one bag of feijaô or beans, and three of rice; the former of which produced eighty, and the latter three hundred and twenty fold. The pasturage supports a fine stock of cattle, and the woods are so full of game, that a deer had been killed on each of the three previous days. This profusion of food showed itself at dinner, where, if the tables did not groan, the guests surely did: for each person is expected to eat of every dish.

It is always necessary to find out what the customs are for eating in any place you visit. There are places where you must finish everything on your plate or you are rude. There are other places where you are to leave a tiny morsel on your plate in order to indicate that you are done, or more will be added by the host. In Botswana, if you place a fork or knife on your plate perpendicular to your line of sight, a watron or servant is supposed to come and take your plate away. Americans do this all the time by accident. I had many a tug o war with a stout and determined Botswanan watron, trying to save my food and not understanding why she was trying to take it away... until I found out how it worked...

One day, having, as I thought, nicely calculated so that nothing should go away untasted, to my utter dismay a roast turkey and a pig appeared in all their substantial reality.

I know I promised you Vampires in this installment, but an odd thing happened and there must be a delay. I'll explain some other time.

The other posts in this series can be found by clicking this link.


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, which is also an alternative history of the Skeptics Movement.

More like this

Great stuff.

The link doesn't seem to work:
"The other posts in this series can be found by clicking this link."

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 12 Feb 2011 #permalink

Charles: Thanks. I have no idea why that link was screwed up (and it was). Fixed, and checking the others now...