Monday, September 1, 2014
Labor Day Brings Portuguese BBQ Memories
This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, September 1, 2014.
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia
Today is Labor Day.
Although begun in 1894 as a federal holiday for workers, for most of us it has become a very welcome long weekend. It marks the unofficial end of summer, the beginning of fall, the kids going back to school, and the start of football season. It is a time for cookouts, traveling to see family and friends, or just relaxing and recharging.
In this area and especially my hometown of Norton, Labor Day weekend is now marked by the Deutsche Bank Championship Golf Tournament, played on the beautiful TPC golf course unfairly known as “TPC Boston”. It is a huge draw.
But if you were a kid growing up in Norton during the 1960’s and 70’s (especially in my neighborhood), Labor Day weekend always makes you remember one thing: The Portuguese Barbeque.
At least, that’s what we called it. I’m pretty sure it was actually known as the Festival of Our Lady of Fatima, or some other religiously-inspired moniker. But for us it was the very official end of summer, a last celebration before heading back to school, and a unique community and cultural experience.
Held on what was then an open field on Plain Street, the Portuguese Barbeque was a kind of carnival and culinary experience. It had the usual array of simple and old carnival rides. It also had a series of booths where you could throw a dart and break a balloon, or roll a ball into a multicolored cupcake pan and hope it landed in your chosen shade, and win a prize worth about three cents. The fact it cost a quarter each play didn’t seem to register with us.
One of the best and most popular things at this yearly festival was the blade meat. It wasn’t like you walked up and got a plate full of cooked beef, or a pre-made sandwich. No, this was the best stuff I ever remember eating – and you had to work for it.
You went to the booth and rented a large metal skewer, really more like a spear. Then you bought the meat uncooked, and watched them roll it in huge chunks of salt. By the time you got the pieces, they were virtually covered in seasoning.
You (or more likely your parent) put them on the skewer, then laid them across a long, rectangular cement fire-pit. The coals were always perfect, and the smell of the meat cooking was sweet torture. But the incredible pleasure of tasting it shortly thereafter was so, so worth it.
The Barbeque started on Saturday and ended Monday night. The grand finale was a terrific fireworks display – perhaps tame by today’s standards, but absolutely thrilling to those of us who never missed them. It was a ritual, celebrating the end of summertime freedom and a return to the rigors of getting an education.
For those of us who are Portuguese, it had special meaning. With Norton’s large Portuguese population at that time (which continues today), we saw a lot of friends, family, and particularly the older generation. We watched, we listened, we learned, and were drawn into the culture and tradition of the home of many of our grandparents and parents.
Of course, there were and still are similar celebrations still held in and around the area. I’m sure many of them are just as steeped in tradition and providing similar memories.
But in this day of video games, the internet, hundreds of cable channels, and phones that provide entertainment 24/7, it is hard to imagine these events meaning as much to kids as this one meant to us. Believe me, it wasn’t the least bit fancy. You didn’t walk through a shining festival of lights or get dazzled with technology, but it was still one of the highlights of the year.
The field that hosted this great event for so many years is now the site of several homes. The fire-pits are long gone, and the smell of that seasoned meat dissipated long ago.
But today I’ll still drive by and remember the days when it was our end of the summer event. And if I try real hard, I still might catch a stray whiff.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.