A lesson in Cape Verdean cooking, and a taste of home

on March 27, 2019

Jospefina Gonçalves, 75, knows how to cook—and she does it well. On a Sunday afternoon at her daughter’s home in North Oakland, she was leading a cooking workshop on how to prepare a Cape Verdean delicacy called pastel, an empanada-like pastry with a mix of African and Portuguese flavors.

“Everything Cape Verdean, I cook,” Gonçalves said confidently. “I don’t cook nothing that’s not Cape Verdean.”

Six women, including Gonçalves and her daughter Nella, are all Cape Verdean Americans—Cape Verde is a nation composed of ten islands off the coast of northwest Africa, near Senegal. And if some of them arrived already knowing how to cook, they were there to refine their skills.

The sound of Cape Verdean dance music filled the air as they chatted in the living room waiting for other guests to arrive. The rhythms are reminiscent of Caribbean dancehall; the energy is festive. Gonçalves popped out of the kitchen and signaled for everyone to come into the kitchen and start the cooking lesson.

Gonçalves listed the crucial ingredients: onions, parsley, olive oil (the Portuguese variety is preferred), canned albacore tuna, eggs, and premade pastel dough circles (empanada dough can be used).

The women split up the work and preparation commenced. Two began washing bundles of parsley and cutting the stems off, while another pair peeled and cut the onions. Onion cutting is emotional labor—eyes began to swell with tears, and the warm room didn’t help.

Romina Meranda was unfazed by the tear-inducing labor. “I’m kind of used to this,” Meranda said, and continued to chop away.

“Who knows how to make pastel already?” Gonçalves asked.

“We all do!” the group responded in unison.

Cape Verdean families “make you cook when you’re like, 5,” said Alex Ribiero, who is the oldest and only sister to her five brothers. “When you’re a girl it’s, like, mandatory. If you’re a girl you’re living in the kitchen, because you have to take care of your brothers.”

In Cape Verdean culture, it’s typical for women to prepare all the meals. Older generations of women spent all of their waking hours in the kitchen. It’s different now, the women at the cooking lesson said, because they are able to pursue careers of their choosing. What hasn’t changed is men still don’t cook a lot.

Once all the onions were cut, the cooks threw them into Gonçalves’ huge cast iron skillet filled with olive oil. “A friend of mine was going to throw it away,” Gonçalves’ said, referring to her prized possession. “I said,  ‘Are you crazy?’”

Once the onions were caramelized, the parsley went in next. The tuna followed the parsley, along with a generous amount of hot sauce.

More Cape Verdean cooks showed up and started pitch in. Gonçalves showed everyone how to do the final step, which is wrapping the filling in the pastel dough circles. The egg yolk is whisked and used as an adhesive to keep the pastel folds sealed. It was Muriel Fortes’ first time wrapping pastels, and she said she was a little nervous. Gonçalves inspected her work and cheerfully approved.

Nella Gonçalves and many of the others belong to the Cape Verdean West Association, a group that raises funds for the Cape Verdean community here and on the small island nation. Portuguese explorers came across the string of uninhabited islands around 1456 and brought enslaved Africans with them. Portuguese and African traditions mixed together, forming a unique culture. Cape Verde became a nation in 1975.

Fortes is the Cape Verdean West Association’s public relations officer; her husband was a founding member in 1978. “He had a group of friends and they felt it was important to get together and support the culture and kids,” Fortes said.

Like most in attendance—and many of the estimated 500,000 Cape Verdeans currently living in the United States,—Fortes grew up in New England. Cape Verdeans have been living in the United States since the 19th Century; most came over as fisherman. “I know a lot of people came over in whale ships and came to this country. My husband’s family, his four brothers, owned a fishing boat and they came over as fisherman,” Fortes said.

These fishermen eventually brought their families over and began settling in cities like Fair Haven, New Bedford and Boston. The majority of Cape Verdeans live on the East Coast, so social gatherings like this workshop mean a lot to everyone.

After hours of prep work on the pastels, the women’s labor produced dozens of mouthwatering, golden brown treats. The outside layer was crispy but soft, the filling was juicy but not watery. Everyone ate and danced to their heart’s content, which pleased Gonçalves.

“I love cooking and the more people [I get to cook for], the better,” Gonçalves said. “If they’re happy, then I’m happy.”

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