When Mary-Jo Avellar's grandparents arrived in Provincetown in the late 1800s, Commercial Street was a dirt road with a wooden sidewalk shaded by elm trees. They came from Portugal, from the island of Flores on the westernmost side of the Azores archipelago, a thousand miles out into the sea. To tell the truth, coming from the islands, they had already made a third of the trip.
When they arrived, things were different here than they'd been in the old country. They acclimated to new soil, a new language, new customs. Her grandfather got work as a trap boat captain, and supplemented the fish he brought home by raising pigs and planting vegetables on their plot in the east end. Slowly, over the years, they became not just Portuguese, but Portuguese-American. Generations passed and the old language gave way to a new one; traditions changed.
Except in the kitchen. Food has been the one thing Avellar's family and other Provincetown Portuguese have held onto amidst all the change.
Worried that they might be losing even this, Avellar put out a call thirteen years ago to friends, family members, and neighbors. People submitted all sorts of recipes and stories, and she collected them all in a book. Molly O'Neill wrote a foreword, Emeril Lagasse sent a few recipes in, and pretty soon, copies were flying off the shelves. There were recipes for things like Portuguese sweet bread, catfish vinho d'alhos, not to mention nine different ways of making Portuguese Kale soup. Oh! and Lisbon codfish balls—salt cod and potatoes seasoned, mashed together, and fried. Salt cod was a staple when Avellar's grandparents sailed in.
If you're interested in the ways place affects food, it's a wonderful history to explore. And of course, there are all sorts of good recipes to peruse. I think my next project will be trutas—something to do with that sweet potato whiling away downstairs—or maybe, when the season arrives, stuffed squid.
Top photo courtesy of the Provincetown Portuguese Cookbook/Mary-Jo Avellar; bottom photos uploaded, with permission, from the collection of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. Beyond Avellar's cookbook, very little is written on the history of the Provincetown Portuguese and their traditional foods, but I did find a very nice article over here.