Plate with cheese and guava jelly

Photo © Michael Sommers.

On Saturday night I flew from Salvador to Belo Horizonte, capital of the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, to meet my most recent ex, Luiz de Abreu.

Luiz is a contemporary dancer and choreographer whose works explore issues related to being black and Brazilian – his most recognized work is a riveting performance called Samba do Crioulo Doido, or Samba of the Crazy Nigger. Simultaneously lyrical and in-your-face, Samba speaks volumes about questions of race in Brazil, and has had a considerable impact on audiences both in Brazil and overseas.

More recently, Luiz won a grant from the federal government to develop a project that focuses upon the influence of each of the three states in which he has lived and worked: Minas Gerais (where he grew up and cut his teeth as a dancer in major dance companies); São Paulo (where he moved in his 30s to carve out a solo career for himself); and Bahia (where he sought to immerse himself, personally and professionally, in an Afro-Brazilian context; 85 percent of the population of Bahia’s capital of Salvador is of afro descendancy).

To carry out interviews and help him shape and edit the eventual text he plans to write, Luiz called upon me to stroll down memory lane with him.

As part of his investigation, Luiz decided to literally take a stroll down memory lane by visiting and interviewing a handful of key figures from his past in Minas, São Paulo, and Bahia, all of whom were seminal in his development as a dancer and who challenged him (directly or indirectly) to come to terms with, develop, and sometimes rethink his sense of himself as a black artist.

(Aside: Historically, professional dance in Brazil has been an elite realm where trained classical, modern, and contemporary dancers have traditionally been white, educated and fairly well off. Although black Brazilians might have eventually infiltrated the ranks of dance companies as “bodies,” the number of black directors, choreographers and heads of university dance department heads is negligible. That Luiz grew up poor and black in the interior of Minas Gerais and never completed a university degree – in dance or any other subject – makes him somewhat of an anomaly in the world of contemporary dance.)

To carry out interviews and help him shape and edit the eventual text he plans to write, Luiz called upon me to stroll down memory lane with him. I jumped at the chance, not only because the project is interesting and Luiz is very creative, but because travel was involved.

So here I am at the beginning of this road trip, which for me is pretty fascinating since it is providing me with some unique insights into Minas’ distinctive culture, which is markedly different from the Bahian culture that is my main reference point.

Yesterday, for instance, Luiz and I interviewed Suely Machado, founder and co-director of Primeiro Ato, a renowned dance company where Luiz first began dancing when he first arrived in Belo Horizonte from his home town in the interior. Suely had invited us to her house in the country for a typical Mineiro lunch, but Luiz screwed up the times so (to my great chagrin) the lunch was not to be. Instead, we ended up doing the interview at Suely’s dance school/studio, amidst thermoses of scalding Mineiro coffee (Minas is prime coffee growing territory) and golf ball-shaped pães de queijo (“cheese breads”), a ubiquitous and frighteningly addictive Mineiro specialty consisting of airy, cheesy, chewy dough surrounded by a hard, crunchy crust.

Suely was disappointed that we missed the lunch since she had been counting on baring her soul to us. As she pointed out, whereas Paulistanos will take you to a restaurant to reveal themselves, and Baianos will take you to a festa or to the beach, for a Mineiro, the ritual of inviting guests into one’s home and plying them with food (and cachaça) is an essential way of offering not only hospitality, but also a glimpse in one’s more intimate self.

Throughout the rest of Brazil – and even amongst themselves – Mineiros are famed for their (relatively) taciturn and reserved temperament. Suely explained that this carefully composed “exterior” functions as a type of armor beneath which often lurk unfathomable depths that Mineiros don’t reveal in public (in direct contrast to Baianos or Cariocas, whose tendency is to let it all hang out, often quite spectacularly).

In this sense, Mineiros’ collective mentality mirrors the state of Minas itself, a landlocked region of steep mountains and deep valleys, whose origins stem directly from the frenzied and determined search for hidden realms of gold, emeralds, diamonds and other precious minerals buried deep beneath the earth (the name Minas Gerais signfies General Mines; mineiro is also the word for “miner”). One never knows what may be found beneath an innocuous looking mountain – a priceless treasure or a dead end – but this sense of deep unplumbed reserves, coupled with an innate distrust of the “surface” (not to mention other miners), is a defining characteristic of the Mineiro jeito de ser, or way of being.

Luiz had warned me that Suely could be very seductive, and I found myself entranced by her mining metaphor as we walked home to the friend’s house where we are staying and where we were subsequently plied with more food and drink.

As we entered the house, I was still thinking about mining, and thinking about Minas, and I then I stopped thinking altogether because our hostess removed an opaque lid covering a large silver tray, revealing a treasure that knocked all thoughts out of my mind – a generous chunk of pearly white, vaguely salty queijo de Minas (Minas cheese) topped with a deep red, gleaming slab of homemade goiabada (guava jelly). An inspired and classic Mineiro match made in heaven, this classic dessert goes by the poetic designation of “Romeu e Julieta” (“Romeo” is the cheese and “Juliet” is the guava jelly) and, unlike Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, there is nothing tragic about this pairing. In fact, momentarily, I felt as if I too had struck had struck gold.