Originally published in Cape Cod Life, June 2003


It's Saturday.  I'm up early on a bright morning, the last weekend in June, plotting my strategy for another full day of celebrating Provincetown's Portuguese Festival. The official activities began Thursday night, with an opening party under a tent at the Bas Relief -- - food, drink, and dancing into the night.


Walking home last night, with the nostalgic swing music fading behind me, I thought of the rich history of this little spit of land at the edge of the "new world".  More than ever, I was aware of the deep imprint of the Portuguese seamen who have risked their lives to make a living from the sea, descendents of those storied voyagers of a small medieval nation - isolated from the Mediterranean and facing the Atlantic - who set sail on the vast unknown of the high seas more than five centuries ago and brought us into the modern age.


This is the sixth year of the revival of this festival of color and tradition, which showcases the religious, cultural and nautical heritage of the town's Portuguese community.  The celebration occurs in conjunction with the annual Blessing of the Fleet. This centuries old rite, held before the onset of the summer fishing season, calls on divine providence to safeguard ships and crews from the danger of the seas and ensure a return to port with a bountiful catch.  Still cogent is an old Portuguese proverb that says, "If you want to learn to pray, go to sea."


Leading up to the blessing are days of revelry and reunion as the children and grandchildren, uncles and aunts and cousins arrive from "away" for a grand homecoming. Mark Silva, whose grandfather Ferdinando Salvador was a fisherman from the Algarve, the southern most corner of Europe (and the location of the legendary navigational school started by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, where some say Columbus himself studied) is the initiator of the revived festival.


Back in 1997, the town was looking at ways to strengthen tourism.  Mark recalled that it was the 50th Anniversary of the Blessing celebrations in Provincetown.  He marshaled a wide group of community volunteers, Portuguese, Irish, Italian, Yankee, and wash-a-shore, got together a planning committee, and began raising funds from the business community.  The group planned activities Mark and others remembered from childhood -- a block dance, a parade, a captains and crews appreciation dinner, kids games and competitions, fireworks, traditional dancers and musicians, and food, an infinite variety of local Portuguese food washed down with ample sips of vinho, and culminating on Sunday with the Fishermen's Mass at St. Peter's Church and the procession to McMillan Pier for the Blessing of the Fleet. 


Since that first year, Silva says, the general attendance at each event has doubled, and more and more of the widely dispersed family of Provincetown Portuguese are planning their summer trip home during the festival weekend.  It has become one of the biggest ethnic festivals in New England. Tim McNulty coordinates much of the food organization out of his famed Lobster Pot in the center of town. McNulty says that in just 4 hours at the Clam Feed on Friday night, he went through 4,000 clams, 500 lbs. of steamers, and 30 gallons of chowder.


It's not surprising that the food is the major draw for many who attend the festival.  Mary Jo Avellar, journalist and cookbook author says that, "Despite the Americanization of the Provincetown Portuguese, a portion of Provincetown's character and vitality is still deeply Portuguese. Much of that spirit and character can be attributed to the foods our Portuguese ancestors enjoyed and which are still prepared today." 


Yesterday began with a Kid's Fishing Derby at Cabral's Pier run by the town recreation dept. and honoring Capt. Mannie Phillips, legendary figure on the pier, expert and innovative tuna fisherman, son of immigrants from Olhấo in the Algarve.


But the really important event of the day, at least as far as I'm concerned, was the Portuguese Soup Tasting.  Picture this:  under the tent at the Bas Relief, a line of welcoming servers hold big ladles poised over steaming pots emitting the intense aromatic cocktail of native pork sausage, clams, beans, and kale, onions and spices. Soup, soup, everywhere.  For a mere $5.00, I can have a bowl of each, plus a linguiça roll. 


My favorite was the spicy Azorean style soup, with hot peppers and saffron and including chouriço, a pork sausage flavored with paprika and garlic.  Another tasty version that particularly appeals to my soup-as-nurture mind contains chick peas and linguiça, squash and sweet potatoes and was provided by L'Uva Restaurant, where Christopher Covelli is the award winning Chef /Owner.


Thoroughly satisfied, as only good soup can make me, I stepped out into the midday light, that amazing light that has drawn painters to Provincetown since the end of the 19th Century, making her the oldest continuous art colony in America.  I strolled over to Ryder Street and stood among the expanding crowd of folk swaying and dancing before a stage set up in the town parking lot where contemporary Portuguese-American musicians play and sing into the afternoon and evening.


At the Homecoming Clam Feed on Friday night, Chef Tim -- impresario, cookbook author, and entrepreneur (Tim's Chowder, Inc.) -- offered diners buffet tables laden with clams in every form -- chowder, stuffed, on the half-shell, steamed, pasta with clam sauce, and the incredible Cataplana, a heavenly clam stew from the Alentejo region of Portugal, consisting of tender little clams punctuated with cubes of pork and spicy sausages. An open bar included excellent Portuguese wines. 


I need to pace myself.  There's still a whole day of festivities before tomorrow's Blessing.  I decide I'll do a walking tour around town, check out the scattered activities, before I catch the parade. One of the things I truly love about Provincetown is that it's a walking town.  Sometimes I go months without moving my car from its treasured parking spot.  


I take the short cut up High Pole Hill, through the grounds of the Pilgrim Monument, which marks the first landing place of the Pilgrims at Provincetown, over to Motta field, where there are kids games and a cookout going on, then back around the through the beautiful town cemetery.  Here on the leaning grave stones I read still prominent Portuguese names going back to the 18th century.  When the New England whaling industry began expanding, the Yankee captains made the Azores a first port-of-call and took on the skilled Azorean and Cape Verdean crewmen, and the stage was set for Portuguese immigration to Provincetown.


I swing past the Food Court at the Bas Relief, which feeds an endless string of festivalgoers from late morning into the evening.  In all the talk of Portuguese food, Ernie Carreiro's name keeps coming up. Carreiro learned to cook from his dad, one of 13 children who came from the Azores to New Bedford with his widowed mother.  Ernie cooked by his dad's side at Tip for Topsin', the popular restaurant they ran at the top of the only real hill in Provincetown.  Tim McNulty calls Carreiro 'The Guru of Pork', for it's Ernie's masterful renditions of pork dishes that draw the crowd.  His specialty is vinhod'alhos (wine of garlic) -- pork tenderloins, soaked in a vinegar garlic marinade for a couple of weeks, sliced thin and pounded into buttery tenderness, grilled and served on a Portuguese roll. Ernie gives ample credit to the faithful Lions Club volunteers who keep it all going, but the Food Court is definitely his kingdom.


Today is the biggest day of the Festival and the crowd on Ryder Street has expanded exponentially, mostly swaying in the wake of young Portuguese Dancers in traditional costume who circle and spin under the waving strings of red and green flags criss-crossing the street.  An elderly woman beside me starts tapping her foot, and before I know it, she's out in the street, a handsome young dancer has taken her hand, and she's lifting her skirt and skipping forward with the heart and smile of the Portuguese girl she still is.  The crowd erupts in wild applause.


The day has warmed.  The afternoon sky is bright blue, a few puffy clouds scudding past, and the crowd moves toward Commercial Street to stake out a spot for watching the parade, which includes Portuguese marching bands from all over SE New England, colorful floats and the town dignitaries.


I rush home for a quick shower and a change into something more daring.   I don't want to miss my perennial favorite, dancing in the street to the fine vibes of the Berkshire Bateria Escola de Samba, a wild group of about thirty talented drummers, dancers, singers and melodic instrumentalists.  The group performs a wide variety of music from Brazil, including hot samba rhythms and cool bossa nova jazz -- sounds that keep me moving in a way my body's forgotten since last year! They cool to a final drumbeat around midnight, and we walk homeward through the darkened streets, an ultramarine sky stretched above us, a barely waning moon. 


Sunday morning.  At St. Peter's this morning they celebrated the Fisherman's Mass. Special prayers were said remembering those who have been lost at sea. At the conclusion of the Mass, the fishermen lift the statue of St. Peter, the revered patron saint of the local church, also a fisherman. Led by the Monsignor and followed by a column of parishioners and townspeople, they process to the pier, the historical heartbeat of the town, for the Blessing of the Fleet.  In the old days, Mark Silva remembers, there were more than 60 boats in the fleet; this year, I count 15.


The fishermen board their boats with family and friends and the flotilla sails past the pier, where the Monsignor blesses the boats with holy water.  The boats pull away, passengers waving, horns blowing, in a jubilant spirit, out into the harbor where they will party into the afternoon.





Web sites of interest to readers: (Mary Jo Avellar's Portuguese cookbook)   (A fascinating exhibit from the Library of Congress: ' Portuguese Communities in America: A Cartographic Perspective,' relaying Portuguese maritime exploration and immigration to the U.S.) (Berkshire Bateria)

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved