See that big, beautiful bowl of spaghetti and clams? It was by far the best meal I had during my trip to Brazil. I've wanted to write about it ever since I got back, but unfortunately it's not the easiest story to tell.
Just a few days after arriving in Rio, I found out that Mankas, the inn and lodge where my brother works, had burned down. Less than a week later, my aunt died suddenly at 44. And just a few days after that, right before Daniel and I were about to leave for a weekend trip, I quickly checked my email. I should have known something else had happened when I saw the five emails, their urgent subjects begging me to click on them. But nothing could have prepared me for the news that my 16-year old cousin had died just hours earlier in a car accident.
We weren’t scheduled to go back to the States for another four days, and after trying to change our flights without any luck, Daniel convinced me to still take our trip. Going somewhere far away where no one could reach us seemed irresponsible or wrong for some reason, but I felt too numb to offer any other suggestions.
Our friend Felix lent us his family’s rustic beach house for the weekend. Sitting on a simple stretch of sand in front of a gentle, green sea, it was a little piece of paradise. Even the sky, which had been grey for so many days during our trip, finally decided to bless us with a stunning shade of blue.
Despite how idyllic it was on the island, I had a hard time appreciating the sea and the sky and the sand and just about anything around us. All I could think about was cold and dreary New York and how bad I felt for being so far away, on vacation no less. I didn't want to be somewhere so warm and peaceful. It didn't feel like a place where one comes to mourn.
At night, while trying to sleep in sheer darkness, the sounds of nature – leaves rustling, waves crashing, all sorts of nocturnal critters gallavanting – did anything but soothe me. Instead, they fed my already wild imagination and I lay there restless, concocting crazy stories in my head about all the other horrible things I was sure would soon happen.
During the day, I spent many hours in the shade reading, or at least trying to, while Daniel set to work in the kitchen, making all sorts of fresh and comforting food which he also so kindly photographed for me.
There was garlic shrimp with okra and tomatoes for lunch, followed by an afternoon snack of fresh palm hearts sprinkled with herbs. And one afternoon, he even tried to pick coconuts from a skinny tree that shot up so high into that blinding blue sky. I felt like we were a cross between Tarzan and Jane and that couple from The Blue Lagoon.
Daniel grew up coming to Felix's house, or Felix's Island as he and all his friends prefer to call it, since he was a kid. And no visit to the island was complete without diving for clams.
On the afternoon when he decided to gather a bunch for us, he bobbed up and down in the water, his tongue sneaking out over his lip as it always does when he's working intently on something. Within about an hour, he proudly held up a pot full of them.
This time when he started to prepare our meal, I was drawn to the sound of garlic and onion sizzling in a pan. It felt soothing and familiar. As he worked, I stood by his side, mesmerized by these underwater creatures he had gathered for us and so grateful for all his attempts to cheer me up.
We set a table facing the sea and filled our bowls till they were overflowing. It felt good to suck the clams from their shells, lick my salty fingers, and loudly slurp up spoonfuls of the creamy broth. We oohed and aahed endlessly and took pictures of ourselves, the view and our impressive meal.
It was a moment and a meal I'll never forget. Food has a powerful effect on me, and sometimes even when the world feels so cruel and unfair, something like a bowl full of fresh clams, plucked right from the sea, can make me forget, at least for a little while, how much life can hurt.
Felix’s Island Clams
Courtesy of Chef Daniel
About 4 dozen dozen freshly hand-picked clams, washed in fresh water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 lb cooked spaghetti or linguini
Ground black to taste
Usually this recipe does not require extra salt - the clams are sufficient.
In a very large sauté pan, brown the onions in the olive oil. When they start turning golden, add the garlic. After about 1 minute, add the clams. After about 10 minutes, the clams will start to open. When about half the clams have opened, add the wine. Let it simmer for another 5-10 minutes, until all clams are open (don't eat the ones that haven't opened). Add the cream and cheese and boil for another 1-2 minutes. Turn off heat and add freshly ground black pepper and parsley. Serve over spaghetti or linguini.