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From cassava to corn, from indigenous to caipira

Studies revisit the history of one of Brazil’s most important culinary traditions


After reading A culinária caipira da Paulistânia (The caipira cuisine of Paulistânia; Três Estrelas), enjoying Minas Gerais cuisine in a city in São Paulo will likely elicit a sense of irony. In his book, São Paulo–born sociologist Carlos Alberto Dória challenges the division of Brazilian cuisine by state and, drawing on research going back to Brazil’s early colonization, explores food traditions in a broader area encompassing the present-day states of Santa Catarina, Paraná, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás, Mato Grosso, and Tocantins. The cuisine of this vast territory, although having some local variation, finds a common identity in a blend of ingredients and techniques deriving from the interaction between Portuguese colonists and indigenous peoples—an identity the author recognizes as caipira in his book. The work also explores the prejudices historically associated with the term, which typically refers to a person or thing originating from rural areas of Brazil.

In this unprecedented historical reexamination, Dória, a sociologist and director of the Câmara Cascudo Culinary Culture Center, looks deeper into the history of corn and attempts to reinstate its perceived importance as an element of national cuisine. “In our culinary history, cassava is portrayed as the staple par excellence of Brazilian cuisine, especially in Romantic historiography,” says Dória, referring to authors such as Brazilian historian Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen (1816–1878), according to whom corn was associated only with Andean peoples. “I attempt to relativize this divide and show that corn is also very present in the cuisine of Brazilian indigenous peoples, especially in Guarani tribes, who are thought to have brought it from present-day Rondônia,” he explains. The book shows how, 500 years before the discovery of Brazil, indigenous peoples living in the South and Southeast grew food crops such as corn, pumpkin and several varieties of beans, which would later become “the trinity of caipira cuisine.”

The Bandeirantes, who subjugated the indigenous peoples they encountered in the course of their exploration of Brazil’s inland territories, were the primary link between caipira and Guarani cuisine. “At first,” Dória argues, “the Bandeirantes essentially ate whatever the natives had to offer—game, fish-catch, and foraged food, as well as cultivated crops.” Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Portuguese settlers began to adopt indigenous techniques as was necessitated by their sojourns. Corn became a staple because it was a practical ingredient as meal and could be harvested twice a year—unlike cassava, which can only be harvested 18 months after it is planted.

According to the author, this demonstrates that traditional Brazilian cuisine is not necessarily the result of miscegenation between European, indigenous, and African cultures, as has been argued by earlier researchers such as sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900–1987) and folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo (1898–1986). Not only is one of these three elements—African culture—lacking in caipira cuisine, as indigenous peoples were the primary source of labor during the relevant period, but the historical process was also not of egalitarian combination, but of domination and appropriation, in which colonists adapted to local, indigenous foods for their own expansionist purposes. Meanwhile, many indigenous traits and habits remained “alive and active” among the colonists, who themselves underwent a process “acculturation.”

Violence and suppression
The perception of Brazilian cuisine as the result of a mere blending of cultures is ​​also contested by Phellipe Marcel Esteves, a professor of language studies at Fluminense Federal University (UFF) and author of the book Discurso sobre alimentação nas enciclopédias do Brasil – Império e Primeira República (Discourse on cuisine in Brazilian encyclopedias—The Empire and the First Republic; Eduff). “The historical process that formed Brazilian cuisine was characterized by violence and suppression. This is illustrated in the way indigenous cooking and food preparation techniques are still used today, but are not described as indigenous in cook books,” he says. “Empirically those traditions are not gone; it is not that we have not borrowed from indigenous or African cultures—we have. But they have been suppressed in discourse.” To illustrate his point, he describes how Barsa, a Latin American encyclopedia, speaks of contributions “brought” by indigenous peoples to Brazilian cuisine. “How did they bring it if they were already here?” he asks.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, with the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais, towns were established inland to provide supplies to mining operations. Maize remained an important staple, both for cooking and as animal feed. It was during this period of early sedentariness that pork, a typical ingredient of Portuguese cuisine, was first introduced, and lard began to be incorporated in the preparation of several dishes. At supply stations for explorers and passing tropeiros, the food that was cooked and offered to travelers was based largely on local produce: beans, corn flour, bacon, rice, cabbage, pork, chicken, marmalades, liqueurs, and canned fruit.

As gold mining fell into decline in the late eighteenth century, these establishments were repurposed. Smallholders turned to subsistence farming, while others supplied their neighboring communities with produce in larger variety. This gave rise to what Dória refers to as the “core of Brazil’s culinary culture”—the sítio—which he describes as “a property personally run by a farmer and his family primarily for the purpose of subsistence, with any surplus produce going to the market”.

The state of Minas Gerais has since appropriated this culinary universe as if it were its own heritage. But this tradition of techniques, ingredients, and utensils is not exclusive to Minas Gerais, as Dória attempts to demonstrate. “What is now known as Minas Gerais cuisine emerged at a time when Paulistas (people from São Paulo) were transplanting their roots from their own state to their European or Asian past, with Minas Gerais seizing the opportunity to create this myth of ‘Mineironess,’” says the sociologist. Although the term ‘Paulistânia’ was coined by São Paulo intellectuals seeking to purvey the myth of the Bandeirante between the 1930s and 1940s, the urbanization of the state at the turn of the twentieth century gave rise to a political and cultural movement that, in seeking modernization, rejected the term caipira as a symbol of backwardness, dissociating it from São Paulo’s identity. The state of Minas Gerais, meanwhile, adopted the cuisine of Paulistânia as if its own.