Botequins, or inns, are part and parcel of traditions in the city of Rio de Janeiro. An offshoot of the taverns of Portugal, they began to spring up in around 1900 in the waterfront neighborhoods of Gamboa, Saúde and Santo Cristo, and in the bohemian quarter of Lapa. Most of the innkeepers were Portuguese who stayed in Brazil after the Portuguese royal court had left the country, though some were Spanish. The men would serve behind the counter, their wives would slave over the fireplace.
The waterfront inns were frequented by former slaves, most of them of African origin, who had moved to the city to look for work in the docks. The botequins of Lapa were a haunt of the underworld and the Bohemian set alike. Here the two worlds could meet and interrelate. Here, too, Carioca intellectuals – typically people with black and Portuguese blood in their veins – could catch up on all the latest news. Their ears pricked for gossip and their eyes constantly turned to the street, these artists and intellectuals gradually filled up the botequins. It was they who created the image of Rio as a city, gradually giving it an identity of its own to supplanted the strong French influence of the past. The botequins gradually developed into sources of chronicle and caricature, two forms of expression in which the Carioca excels.
Since the early twentieth century, the botequin has been a mirror of Rio de Janeiro’s ‘vagabond’ spirit. Styles vary nowadays, but its origin and the origin of the city are one and the same. The interchange between Europeans and Africans spawned a new population that maintained the joie de vivre, good humor, exuberance and vivacity of black Yoruba culture. The two distinctive traits of Rio’s botequins are thus: black high spirits and Portuguese cooking.
Every Carioca associates a given part of their lives with one botequin or another. Everyone has their own personal favorite, the one where they serve the best chopp (draught beer), the one with the best waiter, where they serve the best feijoada (black bean stew) on a Saturday and so on. But there are no arguments. Talking about botequins, the Carioca knows he has to respect the next man’s opinion just as he would if he were talking about religion, or politics or even futebol, football.
The botequin is a stage on which the players are equality and difference, certainty and guarantee, truth and falsehood – all the ingredients of so-called democracia carioca. Informality is another distinctive trait of the botequin. Many inns also ply their trade outside on the pavement. It’s all perfectly illegal, but the botequin is a place that turns the notion of public/private on its head.
People meet up at the botequin on their way home from the beach. Or to watch football matches on the television. When a game is on, only one set of fans pack the joint. The opposing fans aren’t allowed in. Carioca democracy only goes so far!
The botequin is a place for bringing in the New Year, for celebrating birthdays, for indulging in idle table talk. But it’s also somewhere where you’ll find a shoulder to cry on when you’re down. There’s always someone in there ready to listen to your tales of woe. The botequin is such a solid institution, it is the subject of a popular song Conversa de Botequim, Noel Rosa, a composer from Vila Isabel, a northern neighborhood famous for its great samba musicians.
As to the Carioca culinary tradition, I stick to the idea that Rio de Janeiro has no typical dish, but that it does have a typical gastronomic environment. Namely the botequin, which serves up heaped platefuls of the home-cooked dish of the day, the PF, or prato feito, direct from the kitchen at reasonable prices. Before that come the tira-gostos, or appetizers, the most popular of which are bolinhos de bacalhau, codfish fritters. Rio slang now includes the verb ‘petsicar’, to nibble at something. From petsicos, another word for tira-gostos.
Like Portuguese taverns, the botequins of Rio de Janeiro have lost nothing of their former prestige. Their spirit of hospitality and homeliness is the same as it ever was.
One thing’s for sure. If you are visiting Rio and wish to find out more about its social life, then go to at least one botequin during the course of your stay to eat a bolinho de bacalhau or another of the tira-gostos, accompanied by an ice-cool chopp or even the ever irresistible caipirinha.. And on Saturdays, don’t miss out on the feijoada. Best of all, tell and listen to stories, laugh at the jokes, watch the passers-by and talk about all you don’t know and don’t understand – but defending your point to the end!. In short, get deeply involved in the conversation. It may only be botequin talk, but it ultimately deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.
Daisy Justus, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is a clinical psychoanalyst and anthropological researcher on Brazilian food tradition, identity and culture
Photo: Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the last century (http://nostroalbero.ath.cx/rio_antigo/rua_da_carioca.html )
Adapted by John Irving