OURO PRETO, Brazil – Every inch of the table at Casa do Ouvidor is covered with food. There are mashed beans with roast pork loin and pork sausage and chopped collard greens and boiled egg. There is chicken cooked with okra served with corn porridge and white rice. There are beans mixed with manioc flower and more roast pork loin and fried egg. And there is dessert, dulce de leche and guava paste and some sort of coconut/peanut concoction, each dish served with cheese, because … why not?
The spread on the table looks like Thanksgiving, if the entirety of any Turkey Day culinary extravaganza was to be consumed by three people over the course of an hour. Instead, it’s “Thursday.” Brazilians call this “lunch.”
We’re upstairs inside a restaurant that serves the traditional food of the state of Minas Gerais. In two days, Brazil’s national soccer team will occupy the country’s consciousness about a 90-minute drive away, in Belo Horizonte, where Neymar and Hulk and Fred and so many only-one-name-needed stars will face Chile for a slot in the World Cup quarterfinals. That game will stop traffic, close stores and allow a nation in love with soccer to push pause on everything that does not matter, which is to say, well, pretty much everything else.
Ouro Preto is a city of history and tradition, built in a baroque, colonial style — the streets cobblestone, the churches Catholic and ornate and decorated with angels and silver candlesticks the size of baseball bats. The churches rise above town squares. The green mountains rise beyond them in the distance. It’s too pretty for a postcard. It’s more like a painting, or more like a series of paintings that happen to connect.
We’re here in this city of traditions for the contrast, to visit the churches and museums and watch the non-traditional, an American soccer game that really matters outside of America — the United States against Germany in a game that will decide who wins Group G, the so-called “Group of Death.” The U.S. has played well in this tournament, save for that unfortunate last minute against Portugal, and everywhere Americans travel in Brazil, at airports and hotels and inside restaurants, soccer aficionados offer props. Not that anyone expects the United States to win. But progress is progress nonetheless.
Upstairs, in this restaurant with green-and-yellow tablecloths, a television was tuned to US-Germany. A busboy leaned against the wall, his back to the tables and the dirty dishes, silent and entranced. The waiters stole glances at the television. The diners clustered in the tables nearest to the screen.
The trip started earlier that morning, through a road they call the Royal Highway, toward what was the first capital of Minas Gerais, or mine country in the interior of southeast Brazil. Chris Hunt, a contributing editor at Sports Illustrated and an annual visitor to Belo Horizonte, wondered what sort of penalty the latest bite would earn Luis Suarez (nine games and four months, it turned out). His aunt, Sylvia Castro, drove, as samba music played in the background and the sun hung out overhead.
We parked near the frame for a projection screen used for World Cup viewing. Several men offered their guide services, their eyes desperate and bloodshot red. A man sat on the street corner, his head pinging back and forth.
The square featured a statue of Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes, or, the dentist. He was a leader in the Inconfidencia movement back in the 1700s. He wanted Brazil to break from Portuguese colonial power. But he was imprisoned and then drawn and quartered, his arms pulled from their sockets, his limbs left on display around the square. He was hanged in the square where the statue now stands. His death (April 21) is now a national holiday.
A museum designed for the Inconfidencia movement is across the street from the statue. Centuries old guns, knives, spears, silver, huge keys, paintings and statues fill display cases; there is a carriage suspended in the air, its interior so small it’s hard to believe that humans once rode inside. There is also a tombstone with Xavier’s name and the names of his co-conspirators. Now, their names are streets in Belo Horizonte.
The first stop between historical lessons is for a cheese ball, a local favorite called Pao de Queijo, basically cheese melted in the middle of small bread rolls. There’s a joke Hunt told about a man who was dying and asked his wife for one last batch. She made it, and he devoured the first half and asked for the second. At that point, she declined, and when she asked why, she said she needed the rest for his wake.
Soccer fans filled the museums and churches and squares. Several wore Colombia jerseys and hats. Others trolled the local market to find soapstone carvings of their favorite Brazilian teams. We walked by a full-size statue of St. George, clad in full armor, his mustache shaped like a handlebar, a spear held above his head. That’s how I imagined Clint Dempsey against the Germans, even with the busted nose.
We passed a house with a green Brazil soccer scarf hung from the balcony and so many other apartments with Brazil’s national flag out front. The cobblestone streets led from one church to the next. It seemed like finding the game at all might be difficult. Except this is Brazil. So it wasn’t.
We climbed the stairs for lunch. The Americans made it through the first 20 minutes, scoreless. The dining room even seemed to be rooting for them. The assembled sighed when a shot sailed just wide of the Germans’ goal.
Portugal and Ghana played simultaneously, each in competition with the United States for a spot in the knockout round. Twitter provided updates. Ghana scored — on itself, then scored on Portugal to even things. Germany went ahead of the U.S. The tension heightened, built, reached crescendo. It was all too much.
We left the restaurant and went to another church. And then went to another church. And then to yet another church.
An organ played at the first one, the Museu de Arte Sacra de Ouro Preto. The ceiling was painted from one end of the building to the other, the Virgin Mary and Jesus and so many angels all around them, hundreds of wooden stars affixed to the ceiling one nail at a time.
Aleijadinho did much of the sculpting. He is a well-known sculptor and architect in Brazil. He was born here. He is buried here. His father was Portuguese, his mother an African slave. He suffered from what is now described as some sort of debilitating disease, and they called him “Little Cripple,” and yet he carved out the most expressive statues, the faces filled with so many details, furrowed brows and wrinkles and pouty lips; the bannisters curved and styled; the smallest details evident throughout. He had no fingers, but he tied a chisel and a hammer to his hands and worked. Eventually, he moved through the streets here carted by slave assistants.
He did much of the work on the second church we went to as the game neared its end. That church is actually his museum, the Museu Aleijadinho. The ceiling vaguely resembles the Sistine Chapel, with angels in various poses and huge marble columns.
We kept the faith. We passed a store with a television tuned to a Brazil press conference, with Fred in front of the assembled media 90 minutes down the road. Someone asked him about changes to the pre-game meal. He said that Brazil would play earlier against Chile, so their coaches wanted them to eat chicken. Someone else asked who ate the most. Hulk, of course, he said.
Everyone gathered around the television. A shop nearby sold both cachaça, a spirit made from distilled sugarcane juice, and all sorts of cheese. We went down a hill, into one final church, the statues and candleholders all flecked with gold leaf. Everything, gold. Gold angels and gold saints and gold banners. They even sold vials of small gold pieces outside on the street.
The Americans lost to Germany, 1-0, but Portugal beat Ghana, too. That meant the United States would advance into the knockout round, on the day it lost and won at the same time.
Did that feel like a coincidence on a day spent inside the churches? Of course. Probably. Maybe.
“You hungry?” Aunt Sylvia asked.
This is the 17th piece in a series throughout the opening weeks of the World Cup in which SI senior writer Greg Bishop and photographer Simon Bruty chronicle their travel to offer a taste of the cultural side of Brazil.