About this blog
Thrill of Brazil is a travel blog all about Brazil written by Moon Brazil author Michael Sommers. Michael blogs about Brazil travel, culture, and more. He welcomes questions, comments, and story ideas.
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- Brazil’s Homegrown Tourism Boom
- Brazil's Best and Write-est
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part II)
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part I)
- The Dawning of Brazil's B&B Age
- Rio's Alternative Points of View
- Taxi Trouble in Santa Teresa
- Obamas Take to the Campaign Trail in Brazil
- Plans and Punctuality
- Reliving Tropicalismo - On and Off Screen
- Food and Lodging that Make the Grade
- The Making of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil
- U.S. is Number One Source of Immigrants to Brazil
- Best English-Language Blogs about Brazil
Pipoca Tale No. 2
If only BP had thought to make some popcorn, maybe this catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill wouldn't have been quite so catastrophic.
At least, such is the rationale of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.
Brazil's leading supplier of oil and gas, Petrobras is the world's fourth largest energy company and the biggest company in all of Latin America. It is also a global leader in the development of advanced technology for – (ominous drum roll, please) – deep and "ultra-deep" water oil production.
This latter claim to fame should come in handy. In 2007 and 2008, the company struck black gold when it discovered massive oil deposits off the coastlines of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Considered the biggest new oil deposits on the face of the earth, they are also the deepest; the coveted oil in question is located beneath a 2,000-meter layer of salt that lines the bottom of the ocean.
Despite being a mega corporation, unlike BP, Petrobras routinely scores high marks for its social and environmental consciousness. The company is the largest sponsor of art, culture, and environmental protection programs in Brazil and has been recognized internationally for its sustainable efforts. More importantly, long before oil started leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, Petrobras was troubleshooting for potential disasters by simulating oil spills – with popcorn.
In 2009, when Petrobras first started staging fake spills on the high seas of the Brazilian Northeast, the company used styrofoam as a substitute for oil, a non-biodegradable choice that earned it a wrist-slap from IBAMA, the Brazilian Environmental Institute. Subsequently chastened, the company then tried sawdust and rice husks, both to no avail, before hitting upon popcorn, which mimics oil in the way it floats and disperses.
Petrobras immediately put out an announcement for pipoqueiros (professional popcorn makers) who could supply them with freshly popped kernels on an ongoing basis. Despite the company's renown and the promised lucre, nobody showed interest in the job until along came a 37-year-old pipoqueira by the name of Maria Selma Costa (pictured above with her twin sons).
A native of Aracaju, capital city of the tiny Northeastern state of Sergipe, Maria Selma is a mother of three and former maid who became a popcorn lady after struggling through a period of unemployment. She has her own carrinho de pipocas (popcorn cart), from which – like many pipoqueiros throughout Brazil – she pops, seasons, and sells both sweet and salted popcorn to kids and adults. Initially puzzled upon being approached by a Petrobras official, Maria Selma subsequently rose to the challenge of becoming the company's official popcorn supplier. Particularly appealing was the fact that one massive popping session allows her to earn the same amount of money that she would otherwise make during six months of daily popping on the streets.
Of course, in order to become an official supplier, Maria Selma had to become official herself. Upon receiving her first order from Petrobras, she courageously plunged into the murky depths of Brazilian bureaucracy and created a micro business for herself that goes by the name Pipocas Lírio do Vale (Lily of the Valley). Her most recent order, at the end of May, for 100 kilos of popcorn, involved three days of non-stop popping.
To avoid polluting the sea, Selma forgoes cooking oil and instead uses a special variety of corn, munguzá, that pops easily using heat alone. Far from having noxious effects on the environment, Maria Selma's popcorn is actually a hit with the region's maritime inhabitants, including fish and seafood, who eagerly gobble it up.
Meanwhile, signing the deal with Petrobras has also had a positive impact on Maria Selma's business on terra firma. The extra income has allowed her to lay plans for the purchase of a second carrinho de pipocas, which will be manned by an assistant pipoqueiro. Although warding off oil spills is an important sideline, her main goal is to keep customers happy with popcorn that has garnered popular acclaim for its lightness and crunchiness. If you happen to travel to Aracaju and want to confirm the general consensus yourself, you'll find Maria Selma and her carrinho in front of the Hospital São Lucas (Av. Colonel Stanley Silveira, 33), in the bairro of São José.