There is an internal mechanism that churns inside Portuguese people during the summer – starting at the heart and ending in the stomach. One that can only be satisfied by a specific dish, on a specific day, and with a specific group.
Sopas at a Festa on Sunday afternoon. Boiled beef falling apart. The steaming hot broth ladled over dry bread, soaking and giving it life once again. Chunks of cabbage, hopefully the butt part if you’re lucky, and just a hint of mint. All in a large pot being shared amongst a table of hungry bellies.
I can feel the phantom crawl of the first bead of sweat cascading down my forehead. That is the cue to take a huge swig of the ice cold Orange Crush, the preferred drink of Festa goers since Juan Cabrillo discovered California in 1542. The inevitability of an old lady yelling at me that she needs more cabbage! My desire to snap at her during this free feed being placated as I return to the kitchen, seeing the many faces hard at work to dole out this culinary tradition to the masses.
The bar full of loud talkers, motioning with their hands, telling the same story they told last year. Little kids darting in and out of the masses, involved in a game of tag that started on Grant St. in 1920, and perpetually has had someone “it” since then. Queens and courts from other towns gathering to find the perfect shade spot on the front lawn.
The matriarchs of the hall issuing me orders like I’m a soldier needing to advance on a beachhead. It is a fact that Tony Coit and myself, at any given moment during the day, will each have 12 freshly-issued orders that must be completed in under 6 minutes. The patriarchs laughing as we fumble our way through the paces, recalling the days when these same orders were theirs to uphold.
Then that sweet sound. The return of the parade from the church. Banners of out of town halls lined up as far as the eye can see. The dates and according townships of small and large groups of Festa representatives, once again on the streets of Manteca. Monterey, San Francisco, Turlock — Thornton! Places that our contingent of MRPS Queens and court will soon be marching in or have just come from.
The Azores band is playing its Festa marching song. My mother says that when I was about 6, she caught me whistling that tune alone in my bedroom. Not the day after the Festa, not a week after, but in the dead of December. The moment she knew she’d lost all control, and that my Festa emancipation had begun.
At this point the day revs up to full throttle. A second feeding of the public happens. I did mention that is the point of the Festa correct?
Paying homage to Queen Isabella – who, in her day, against the wishes of her tyrannical husband King Diniz, was sneaking food to the starving people of their kingdom. When caught red handed and asked to open her robe of hidden bread, a miracle occurred - turning bread into roses. So moved by the act, and the subsequent arrival of food bearing ships, his people were fed. This is the yearly tradition, one that plays out in a variety of towns each weekend in California.
All with their own version of an old lady yelling that she needs more cabbage.
The humming of a collective group of Portuguese people 6 “Orange Crushes” into the day fills the room. It’s controlled anarchy. The auction begins – drinks are being passed around, spilled, and passed around some more. The perfect lubricant for a Festa auction. Afghans, sweetbreads, toy tractors, and goats selling like hotcakes.
“If you’re driving home from the Festa Auction in an $800 pickup, with a $1,200 sweetbread, you might be a Portaugee” — Jeff Foxworthy-Silva
There are always a few “prospective” Portuguese women I introduce myself to, then make sure to ask if we’re related before moving forward. Awkward.
A giant sweaty blur of hugs, shouting, tears for the loved ones no longer here - and a sense of accomplishment and community pride.
But none of this will happen this Sunday. The pandemic has rearranged the world on all fronts. The first Festa I’ve ever missed during my 29 years on Earth (by Earth I obviously mean the 6-mile space between Perrin Road and the MRPS Hall).
I’d like to think that if there was a cure for COVID-19, it’d be simmering in a fresh pot of sopas, waiting to be ladled over the collective souls of our community.
We are all hoping to be able to push the date of our Festa back this year, because I’d rather have late sopas than none at all.
In the meantime, I’ll be heading down to Eckert Cold Storage for a few heads of cabbage and roaming the streets this Sunday in search of old cabbage lady. If you see me Joe Montanaing a head or two, let me know you’re open — I’ll hit you in stride.
“It’s not Where ya do, It’s What ya do”