Fireworks, Favelas and Feijoada

Fireworks, Favelas and Feijoada

Aylin Öney Tan -
Fireworks, Favelas and Feijoada Rio surely is a town of sharp contrasts. Few cities in the world have such a dramatic setting. Steep hills encircle the most amazing beaches; the gigantic sugar loaf rock marks the border of the infinite ocean. This is the most pertinent theatrical set for drama, and of course, the city is never short of dramas. Rio gets its striking beauty from the spectacular setting of hills, contrasting the endless beaches, and the drama is hidden in this contrast. Most of the population lives in favelas, the almost vertical squatter neighborhoods with its inhabitants watching over the crème de la crème of their city. The contrast between the rich and poor might be steeper than that of the sugar loaf dominating the landscape of Rio. Yet it is the favela culture that commands the city and fosters the Rio carnival, the most colorful and joyous urban party ever; and it is no secret that the carnival itself is also never short of dramas. 

Even Brazilian cuisine is not exempt from a good dash of drama. Feijoada, the iconic dish of Brazil, is often believed to be a product of the favelas, or slave quarters. The often repeated story is that the local black beans were the main staple reserved only for the slaves, cooked with meat leftovers from the manor houses unfit for the palate of the masters. According to Brazilian researcher Rodrigo Elias, the fact contrasts the myth. The dish does not have any connection with slavery; on the contrary, the oldest references to feijoada points to the restaurants patronized by the urban elite with many influences of different cultures that form the ruling classes of Brazil. According to the great folklorist of Brazil, Câmara Cascudo, feijoada is beyond a simple dish, but a whole menu, with sides like cooked collard greens, rice, farofa, salsa and orange slices, called “feijoada completa,” it is a feast on its own. Strangely, the dish seems to be the consensus ground for both the rich and the poor, erasing social differences; it is embraced by all. 

Just two weeks ago, as I was watching the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, I really wished I were there; and I was a bit worried as Marco Balich, the brother of one of my best friends, was the person responsible for the ceremony. Under such a wild setting, any show was doomed to be overshadowed by the city itself and its history of dramas. Plus, there was the dilemma of economic depression in Brazil; I knew that the team would not be comfortable at splurging under such circumstances. So, with a budget that was a fraction of the total spent on the London and Beijing Olympic shows, the opening and closing ceremonies of Rio 2016 must be evaluated in different terms. I somehow trusted this Italian-Brazilian connection, as I know that both nations can create miracles under the most adverse conditions, and they host the two uniquely magical carnivals of the world, Rio and Venice. No one seems to recognize the fact that Marco Balich is a native of Venice, though he is Milan-based now; he is born to a culture that truly knows how to celebrate in style. 

The ceremony, as I expected, tackled various issues related to Brazil with a universal approach. It could not be without the favelas, and there it was; the cultural and ethnic diversity was there and, of course, the Amazons with all the environmental concerns and climate change warnings. The green message was expected, as it was also the theme behind the Milan Expo last year – “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” another Balich creation. This is a very Venetian way of combining entertainment with serious politics; together with the Brazilian talent of “Gambiarra,” making something great out of almost nothing, the tight budget was no longer an issue. 

Beyond the show business part, the green message of the opening ceremony must be taken globally seriously. Another green message came with another Italian-Brazilian collaboration: the RefettoRio Gastromotiva. Launched by Italian celebrity chef Massimo Bottura and Brazil’s David Hertz, the project aims at feeding the poor of Rio by reclaiming the discarded and rejected food of the Olympic village. Hertz is the hero behind the Brazilian Gastromotiva project, targeting the less privileged youth of Rio to be trained as chefs. Thus he was the perfect partner for the soup kitchen Bottura wanted to create in Rio. The same idea was successfully implemented last year during the Expo Milano; the homeless of Milan were served daily meals at Refetterio Ambrosiano, where the meals were created by reputed chefs visiting the Expo making use of the waste food of the fair. I had the opportunity to witness the dinner prepared by MSA, a leading cooking school of Istanbul; the atmosphere was not only about saving waste food or feeding the poor, it was beyond that; it was about sharing a decent table with dignity.  

Now, the very global problem lies here: Sharing the same table with dignity. As long as the privileged few of the world refuse to share their wealth with the rest of the world population, a global inferno is inevitable. There is a Turkish saying: “Biri yer biri bakar, kıyamet ondan kopar” literally “As one eats and another watches, doomsday arrives,” which can be translated as “All conflicts stem from the contrast between the haves and the have-nots.” Blessed with the Christ the Redeemer, Rio with all its party-loving crowd teaches us a serious lesson. We need to prevent waste, we need to learn to share and we need to enjoy a spread of feijoada together.