February 2001

The Feira

Do you prefer chicken? Take your choice:
A live one you can carry off flapping; one with its throat slit
but still feathered; one cleaned and gutted; or any selection
of poultry parts, even a clump of feet, if you fancy them.

Norman Weeks

One of the early lessons in my study of Portuguese was the names of the days of the week. Monday, I learned, was segunda-feira, second feira. Tuesday was terça-feira (third feira), Wednesday was quarta- (fourth) feira, Thursday quinta- (fifth) feira, and Friday sexta- (sixth) feira. What was this feira? It had to be something important, if five of the seven days of the week had the word in their name.

The dictionary translates feira as fair, but the similarity in sound is deceiving. If we Americans think of a fair, what first comes to mind is a county fair or state fair, which are agricultural expositions and displays of home cooking and various domestic handicrafts. The American county or state fair is a nostalgic throwback to the days when most Americans lived on farms. Today, suburban and urban families go to the fair, as they would go to the zoo, to see animals that are exotic to them. Most state fairs are characterized more by amusement park rides, games of chance, and country music shows. That's not what a Brazilian feira is.

We also have our crafts fair or arts fair. In those the word fair means a product line for show and sale. We would never name the days of the weeks of our lives after such trivial events as a crafts fair or arts fair.

I found out what a Brazilian feira was in the best way to learn anything, that is, by experience. When I went off as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Brazil in 1968, I was assigned to a small town named Penedo in the state of Alagoas. Penedo was not a place you would describe as lively and jumping,—except for one day of the week, feira day.

The feira is an all-day open-air market, in which rural producers converge upon the town to supply the needs that the townspeople cannot supply for themselves, principally fresh food. The townspeople, in turn, give the peasants what they lack, namely, cash money, with which the peasants can buy town goods.

Every small town in the Nordeste (northeastern region) of Brazil has its designated day of the week for the feira. On that day, the number of people in the town multiplies with the arrival of all those with wares to sell.

When I lived in Penedo, most of the local people did not have a refrigerator, so they could not store perishables for very long. They had to buy fresh at the feira. Of course, meat and fruit and vegetables will not stay fresh for a whole week, so Penedo, like other towns, had a daily feira too, but it was only a half-dozen stalls where people could get a few things to tide them over until next feira day.

So, the Brazilian feira is the open-air market in which the rural people and the townspeople gather to meet one another's needs and sustain one another. It is human economy at its basic.

Like the United States, Brazil today is becoming more urban and its economy global. We are ever farther removed from economic basics. The traditional feira in a small town in Brazil returns us to what economy used to be, that is, local and person-to-person.

The Nordeste in 1968 being one of the poorest regions in the Americas, some of the people who were my neighbors on the rural road outside Penedo lived on little or no money. They were day laborers. A man might hoe a field all day, but not receive cash for his labor. Instead, he would be given some mandioca (manioc, a staple, like our flour), or beans or rice or a chicken or two. It was a hand-to-mouth subsistence.

If, however, that laborer happened to have a mango tree in his backyard, one that was bearing heavily, he might gather up some bushels of those mangoes, go into Penedo on feira day, and sell the fruit to the townspeople for cash. One old lady neighbor of mine eked out her living by selling bananas off the plants in her little yard.

Penedo in 1968 had a few small food shops, but nothing that could by any stretch of the imagination be described as a supermarket. As for the canned goods and processed foods sold in those stores, they were too expensive for most of the locals. Only such people as shop owners, bank clerks, and other members of the small middle class could afford to buy much in the food shops. Besides, fresh local was always preferred to old preserved.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I received not a salary but a subsistence allowance, which, as I remember, was sixty dollars a month, paid in cruzeiros, the Brazilian currency of that time. Of course, sixty 1968 dollars bought more than sixty 2000 dollars, but, inflation or no, I definitely lived on a level not much higher than the locals.

Even so, I could buy filet mignon to eat. How so? Because the feira eliminates all middlemen and the costs they add to everything you buy in a store. You'd be surprised how cheaply you can buy directly from the producer. In the feira, it was the herdsman himself who raised the steer, brought it into town, butchered it, and cut slices to my specification.

(Before you think that I was living too high on the steer, however, you should know that Brazilian beef is not our melt-in-the-mouth Angus. The cattle of the Nordeste are the Brahma cattle brought from India. The Brahma is one tough, muscular beast, but it is preferred because, unlike our pampered American breeds, the Brahma can shrug off the heat, attacks of hordes of tropical insects, and the nightly feedings of the vampire bats.)

And so, on feira day I would proceed down the street to stock up on the food I needed for the next week. (I was lucky to obtain a small used refrigerator, that, when there was electricity, served me well.)

The Penedenses (townspeople of Penedo) used to marvel that I did my own shopping,—I a man, and an American man working for the United States government at that! (We know the word macho from Spanish, but Portuguese too has the word and Brazil the sexist cultural value.) When I informed the locals that I even washed my own dishes, they were further confounded. Well, the Peace Corps was meant to be an agent of change of social attitudes.

Luiz Gonzaga, the grand old man of Nordestino folk music, has a song called "A Feira de Caruaru". Caruaru is a town in the Nordeste state of Pernambuco, Luiz Gonzaga's homeland. In the song, which is a very cheerful tune, Luiz brags that "at the feira of Caruaru everything that there is in the world they've got for sale". The whole song is just a long inventory of all the items you can buy at the feira of Caruaru, up to and including "pants, so that the matuto (rustic) won't have to go around naked".

On my nostalgia trip return visit to Penedo in 1995, I had the perfect timing to arrive in town right before feira day. I wouldn't have to go from door to door looking for old friends, because they would all be out and about in the feira. And I had the immediate opportunity to re-experience the stimulation that the feira gives to small-town Brazilian life.

If Luiz Gonzaga can sing the praises of his feira in Caruaru, let me do the same for my beloved Penedo. Please accompany me, who, after all, used to be a local, down the street and into the feira of Penedo.

First of all, the setting: The feira stretches out before us down through many blocks of a straight main street of the town and spills over onto a few parallel and intersecting streets. The feira is colorful, noisy, and crowded too, so we will have to make our way slowly through it.

The vendors work a variety of venues. There are the huge, warehouse-like, open buildings, with long counters on which meat or produce is displayed to those who file through. There are also storefronts open to the street.

But the feira is not contained by buildings. The vendors sell from the back of open trucks or from wooden carts or steel wheelbarrows. They operate out of sidewalk stands shaded by black plastic, or on rickety tables, or, lacking those, on a sheet of plastic laid on the stone-block pavement.

You would think that the sellers would set up their display and let the customers come to them. But, no, there are two strategies of selling. Some sellers are indeed stationary, but others mill in the streets, wandering about and shouting their offerings, obstructing the free passage of the customers. Boys carry trays of wares supported by a strap around their necks.

Wouldn't the itinerant peddlers see the same number of people, if they just stood still? Wouldn't that be a more effective presentation of their goods? I would think that the wandering popsicle salesboy might become overheated and dip too much into his own stock, or, worse, get his stock all melted. Better if he found a shady spot, stood there, and shouted, "Picolé"!

There are also strategies for buying. I myself don't have the temperament for haggling or tedious comparison shopping, but you can try both in the feira of Penedo. The vendor will quote a fixed price per weight or quantity, but you might get it for less if the vendor has more stock than he thinks he can sell in one day or if you buy in quantity or if you are one of his best regular customers.

You can also get things cheaper if you go toward the end of the day, when the vendors are anxious to dispose of all the perishables they have brought. The disadvantage of that strategy is that all you might find for sale are the pickings and leavings and rejects of all the other shoppers.

There might be some barter transactions going on among the vendors themselves,—barter, the most simple economic exchange. One vendor might swap a chunk of beef for a live turkey another vendor has brought, or trade a dozen eggs for some choice onions and carrots.

And now, what can we find in our one-stop shopping in the Penedo feira?

Here are the fruits and vegetables, in all their colors, shapes, and sizes, in all their forms and varieties, as tasty to the eye as to the tongue.

Of fruits, there are bananas in abundance. (Brazil has over twenty varieties.) Oranges, of course, and all the other citrus family members. Coconuts; the state of Alagoas is said to have the most coconut trees in all Brazil. (There are a lot of coconut trees in Brazil.) The mangoes and maracujá (passion fruit) will quench a tropical thirst.

You won't find such temperate-climate fruits as peaches, pears, and apples in the feira of Penedo, but how about trying some local tropical?: Caju (the fruit of the cashew nut tree), carambola (star-fruit), goiaba (guava), jaca (jack-fruit), or jabuticaba, pitanga, and other fruits that I've never seen in an American supermarket or even know the names of in English. You can also buy sugar-cane stalks to chew on. Penedo is in the sugar-cane region.

Of vegetables, the most luscious is the tomato, so luscious, in fact, that some insist on calling it a fruit. On a walk near my sítio (little rural villa) outside Penedo, I once happened to come across a plant growing like a weed by the roadside. I plucked its tiny pulpy red fruit and squeezed out its sparse juice. From the smell of the plant that came off on my hand, I knew immediately that I had found the wild ancestor of our own cultivated tomato plant. The tomato is indigenous to our Americas.

In the feira of Penedo, you can also buy corn and potatoes and sweet potatoes, other vegetables unknown to Europe before Columbus and Cabral and their successors brought them home with them. (It's hard to imagine no potatoes in Ireland, no tomato-sauce in Italy.)

Almost every shopper in the feira of Penedo will buy a quantity of black beans and rice, which, in combination, are the mainstay staple of the Brazilian diet, like our bread. In Penedo, as in much of the rest of Brazil, beans-and-rice are served as a side dish at every lunch and dinner. A bit monotonous, you might say, but cheap, solid food and excellent nutrition.

"What, no coffee?", you exclaim as you look around the feira of Penedo. No, the feira has local produce only. Coffee is grown in the south of Brazil; the state of Alagoas is too tropical for its cultivation. Brazil is no place to get a cup of coffee, anyway. I won't say that I never had a good cup of coffee in Brazil, but when I lived there the best grades of coffee were exported to get foreign currency, while the Brazilians got only the standard grade of their own prime crop. I suppose there is excellent coffee in São Paulo or Rio—maybe even Starbucks by now—; I confine my reporting to just my Penedo experience.

No coffee, but for fruits and vegetables, a tropical cornucopia is spilled onto the streets of Penedo on feira day. Less savory is the meat department. Here the head of a pig, its eyes shut tight in its last wince, there a row of bovine hearts—not still beating, thank God!—, over there a pile of livers and a tableful of intestines. A large tongue lolls over the edge of the table. The stench of blood and offal rises in the crowded heat. It's enough to turn you into a vegetarian.

Nonetheless, if your stomach is as strong in the looking as in the eating, there are some choice cuts here. Brahma beef steak in abundance, cut just the way you like it.

Do you prefer chicken? Take your choice: A live one you can carry off flapping; one with its throat slit but still feathered; one cleaned and gutted; or any selection of poultry parts, even a clump of feet, if you fancy them. You can buy some live chicks to take home and raise for some future meal, perhaps when the in-laws drop in on a non-feira day. Hear the parting squawk of a cock just executed on a customer's orders. There is murder most fowl in Penedo on feira day.

Penedo is located on the São Francisco River, not very far inland from where it discharges into the Atlantic. Because of Penedo's favorable location, its feira can offer both seafood and riverfood. There are plenty of delectable piranhas or tucunaré (peacock bass, a sportfish but also good for the table). Some of the riverfish, however, have a crude unappetizing look, like carp. The fish are fresh. In fact, the catfish (peixe-gato, same name in Portuguese) are still panting on the dry ground. Or you can get your fish dried-and-salted.

There are also crabs, lobster, and shrimp. If you want to buy seafood in the feira of Penedo, I suggest you shop early, for it all sits in the sun, and such slow cooking, I fear, does not enhance its flavor.

Missing from the harvest of the river these days is jacaré (alligator, or cayman) from the swamps of the São Francisco. Now that it has become extinct, it's on the protected list. I recall that during my two years of Peace Corps service in Penedo, I'd occasionally see a jacaré brought in trussed alive, its jaw wrapped tight shut with twine. Jacaré was sold by its length; it could be as long as a man is tall. I never bought one, because, living alone, I would have had too much leftovers.

There was one restaurant in town that had jacaré on its menu. My Peace Corps colleague Mark and I tried it one evening. The jacaré was stringy in texture but quite edible. (When I returned to the United States and happened to mention I had eaten alligator in Brazil, I was asked what it tasted like. "Crocodile," I answered.)

If, by philosophical conviction or mere squeamishness, you incline toward vegetarianism, the feira can cater to your scrupulous diet. Besides the innumerable fruits and vegetables, there are grains and roots and tubers and beans and nuts and twigs and sprigs. Also, medicinal, even aphrodisiac, herbs, powders, and potions.

If, on the other hand, you scorn health-consciousness and love self-indulgence, you can buy fresh locally grown tobacco cut in sections from a coiled rope. The vendor will even set it afire for you to experience and approve its aroma.

Today, Penedo does have a supermarket, but the feira is not at all diminished by that fact. After all, you may do your shopping in a supermarket without saying anything to anybody or anybody saying anything to you,—a silent and lonely task! In the feira, you can haggle and chat and gossip with the neighbors, in short, continue as a social human being while you are buying your necessities.

You'll find much more than groceries at the feira of Penedo. The feira, in fact, provides every necessity or frivolity you want, need, or can be talked into wanting or needing.

Down the street we go, past cosmetics and toiletries, housewares and hardware, watches and electronics, toys and miudezas (notions) of every type. Around the corner to clothes and shoes. Then farther on to furniture, junk, and machinery of this-or-that.

How about a bird-cage, with or without bird? On my 1995 trip, I talked to the birdseller for a few minutes. He told me the names of the kinds of birds he sells, imitated their repertoire, and said that listening to the radio was a great stimulus and inspiration to their singing. "And does that one over there know any of the songs of Roberto Carlos?" I asked him, alluding to Brazil's most famous pop singer. No, the bird hadn't yet advanced to that level of sophistication.

The vendors' product-line may include a hundred items or only one, like the razor blades (gillettes) sold by one itinerant vendor. He offered me some, but I stroked my beard and told him, "Não preciso," (Don't need `em).

He laughed and moved on to more likely prospects.

Yes, the feira of Penedo, Alagoas has it all...well, except for diamonds and furs. You'll have to make do with junk jewelry; and the climate makes furs ridiculous, anyway.

On the first day of my return to Penedo after an absence of twenty-five years, I walked the streets of the feira. Mingling with the crowds, I tried not to be a conspicuous outsider. It is not easy for me to pass myself off as a penedense, for I tower over almost everybody. My sunglasses did conceal my blue eyes, and I had acquired a bit of a tan in the Amazon. Even so, I drew some stares from the vendors and shoppers.

Perhaps I deserved their suspicious scrutiny. The sellers and buyers of the feira must have thought me a strange stranger, for I spent the entire morning there—in two forays, with a breather between—, the entire morning, and yet I bought...nothing!

Norman Weeks served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Penedo, Alagoas, Brazil from 1968 to 1970. In 1995 he returned to Brazil and to Penedo to see how all had changed in twenty-five years. Tropical Ecstasy, his book on the trip, is being represented for publication by Debbie Fine, Southeast Literary Agency, P.O. Box 910, Sharpes, Florida 32959-0910. Norman Weeks may be reached at   

"The Feira" is adapted from material in Tropical Ecstasy.

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