By Christina Stock
Today, I have a new recipe for you that is directly pulled out of the pages of a book that I reviewed. “Before We Died” by Joan Schweighardt, an Albuquerque author, is set in South America’s Amazon jungle where two Irish-American brothers from New Jersey try to survive. At one point the malnourished men get saved with a dish that is still a favorite amongst Brazilians.
I made it myself last Tuesday and it is a keeper. After all the heavy eating at Thanksgiving, this dish is light and bursts of flavors.
Amazon Stew (Serves 2)
2 wild onions (shallots) with green leafs, finely chopped
2 Tbsp butter
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup roasted and lightly salted cashews
1 cup fresh pineapple (I bought a cup of already chopped fresh pineapple)
2 yams, peeled and diced (or one large sweet potato)
4 cups of vegetable stock
2 chicken breasts (without bones and skin, fried and shredded)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh coriander for garnish
After you’ve fried and shredded the chicken put it aside — you can easily make it the day before or use leftovers. I used shredded chicken, but others use shredded pork or fish.
Melt butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, stirring it often. Add garlic and sauté for an additional two minutes.
Add pineapple, yams, vegetable stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, add the shredded chicken and simmer for 15 minutes until the yam is tender.
The natives in the Amazon use yams, so I did as well. Yams are a form of a sweet potato, just smaller, softer with a more intense flavor.
Take the stew off of the heat and with a handheld potato smasher, smash until you get the consistency you like. You can also turn the stew into a soup if you use a food processor.
Serve in soup bowls with the coriander leaves as garnish on top.
Tip: This soup is also excellent when served cold in the summer as a gazpacho.
Now to Joan Schweighardt’s book. “Before We Died” is not for sensitive readers. The main characters, Irish-American brothers Braxton and Jack Hopper, work at the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1908 and their language is very colorful — when not in the presence of their mom or the woman they both love. The cursing is not overused and fits into the intense scenes and conversations.
If you are interested in diving into cultures and experiencing an adventure that takes you back in time, this is one of the best books I have read so far. The story is exciting, deep, meaningful and grips the heart of the reader with characters that are real and — despite their lingo — very likable.
The entry to the story is a brief history of a period in time and a connecting plant that most people don’t remember. This plant was part of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and the world, the rubber tree. Rubber was needed for tires, hoses, shoe soles, fan belts and the only source was Brazil — the rubber boom was similar to the gold rush. Young men went down into the jungles of the Amazon to milk those trees, lured with promises of wealth and fortune.
Braxton meets a Portuguese businessman who hires him and his brother to harvest rubber tree sap in the jungles of the Amazon. The brothers hop onto the boat to Brazil without money and a lot of naiveté, hoping to make it rich in a year with hard work.
The author starts throwing in exotic flecks of Portuguese words, which shows the challenge the two English-speaking men have to understand the people they will have to work with. Along the journey Portuguese words are explained, dishes and sayings paint a vivid picture. The brothers are intelligent, trying to learn Portuguese. From the ocean trawler they switch to a smaller boat to enter Brazil by river.
The childlike awe of the brothers at the first sight of the jungle and its creatures brings the reader even closer to the story.
The tone of the book changes subtly, an undercurrent of doubt appears when the first things don’t go as smoothly.
The author’s writing is well-balanced between the inner thinkings of kind-hearted Jack and the action scenes of working and traversing through the jungle with all its dangers — the real dangers get highlighted by legends told by the experienced locals on board.
The first mentioning of the treatment of natives is quite a shock for the reader and shows the racism of the time. The brothers do not agree on treating natives as animals, though they are worried encountering hostile tribes.
An example of the dangers the brothers encounter is when the men have to beat the water with sticks, so piranhas and caiman don’t attack those who bathe in the river.
It is a straightforward multi-layered story of rough and strange beauty — like the jungle.
Once the rain season is in full swing the reader feels for the miserable men working under harsh conditions, battling cabin fever, desperation and the deadly nature of their environment.
While the story is fiction, remember, without these rubber trees and these men, World War II would have been lost. It was not until the latter part of the last century that the first attempts were made to synthesize rubber from simple chemical compounds.
Award-winning author Schweighardt grew up in New Jersey and lived in Florida and New York before moving to Albuquerque. She is the author of six novels and a memoir. Learn more at joanschweighardt.com. “Before We Died” was published by A Five Directions Press Book and is available as a paperback or an electronic book. It is Schweighardt’s first in her new “Rivers” series.