Anything You Choose, Sir!

Palm Trees and Boulders in the Bay of Rio, Brazil. Marianne North. Date: 1873.

One of the distinct pleasures of travel is the opportunity to eat and to drink in new places, to partake of local things, in situ: to dine on Neapolitan pizza cooked in wood-fueled ovens in the bustling port of Naples, for example; to sip a German Riesling in the glow of sunset at a restaurant on the Rhine; to enjoy a freshly baked buttery croissant and cup of coffee at a small café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, while sitting with a lover. These experiences provide the traveler with a lifetime of precious memories.

With the numerous guidebooks available today and access to online reviews and recommendations, planning where to go and what to eat is relatively simple. The only significant difficulty is selecting from the abundance of choices. But what was it like before all of this? What was it like to travel around Brazil, for instance, in the 1830s? We have a record of this very thing, written by an extraordinarily keen observer, the English naturalist, Charles Darwin.

In his book, The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin tells about an excursion he took while the Beagle was docked at Rio de Janeiro. He was offered, and accepted, the invitation to accompany an Englishman on a visit to his estate located over one hundred miles north of Cape Frio. There was no train, highway, or river transport to the estate. The trip was made on horseback, riding on some days for as long as ten hours.

So, what about food and accommodations? Along the route, the travelers would eat and sleep at a vênda, an inn. Here is Darwin’s description of his experience at one of them, which he identifies as a representative of “the type of its class.”

The vênda stands in a courtyard, where the horses are fed. On first arriving, it was our custom to unsaddle the horses and give them their Indian corn; then, with a low bow, to ask the senhôr to do us the favour to give us something to eat. “Anything you choose, sir,” was his usual answer. For the few first times, vainly I thanked providence for having guided us to so good a man. The conversation proceeding, the case universally became deplorable. “Any fish can you do us the favour of giving ?”—“Oh no, sir.”—“Any soup?”—“No, sir.”—“Any bread?”—“Oh no, sir.”—“Any dried meat?”—“Oh no, sir.” If we were lucky, by waiting a couple of hours, we obtained fowls, rice, and farinha. It not unfrequently happened that we were obliged to kill, with stones, the poultry for our own supper. When, thoroughly exhausted by fatigue and hunger, we timorously hinted that we should be glad of our meal, the pompous, and (though true) most unsatisfactory answer was, “It will be ready when it is ready.” If we had dared to remonstrate any further, we should have been told to proceed on our journey, as being too impertinent. The hosts are most ungracious and disagreeable in their manners; their houses and their persons are often filthily dirty; the want of the accommodation of forks, knives, and spoons is common; and I am sure no cottage or hovel in England could be found in a state so utterly destitute of every comfort.

Charles Darwin, The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter 2

It’s hard for me, even to imagine, killing my dinner with a stone—obviously not 5 Star billing. But I’ve eaten in more than a few restaurants where I was given to understand when asking about the status of my meal, that it would be ready when it was ready. My wife once ate at a restaurant where her dinner was served to someone else, who ate it.

Once in a great while, however, something serendipitous would happen to Darwin. Here is an example; his description of a meal at a place called Campos Novos.

At Campos Novos, however, we fared sumptuously; having rice and fowls, biscuit, wine, and spirits, for dinner; coffee in the evening, and fish with coffee for breakfast. All this, with good food for the horses, only cost 2 shillings 6 pence per head.

Charles Darwin, The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter 2

Notice that even the horses ate well!

May all your travels be good ones, safe ones, that provide you with pleasant memories and dining adventures only of the best kind, like Darwin’s at Campos Novos.

All the best!

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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