Friday, July 27, 2012

Zenilda Lopes Bezerra or Dona Zena or Zeninha - Your Choice

In yesterday's post on Flavors of Brazil, we highlighted the recent coronation of a dish of meatballs as Fortaleza's favorite casual dining dish in the annual national competition known in Brazil as Comida di Buteco. Among the 16 bars, botecos and restaurants that entered dishes in the competition, which is voted on by diners themselves, not by professional judges, Dona Zena was the clear winner with her recipe for meatballs, perfectly seasoned and simply fried.

As mentioned in the earlier post, Dona Zena's triumph in the Comida di Buteco competition wasn't the first recognition this hard-working woman has received. She recently shared her recipe for meatballs with a national television audience in Brazil, and at that time, an extensive interview with Dona Zena was published in Fortaleza's best daily newspaper, O Povo.

Dona Zena with happy customers
Though her full name is Zenilda Lopes Bezerra, she's known to most of her customers as Dona Zena, and that is the name her restaurant has had in all the years of her existence. To her family, and close friends (including many faithful customers of the restaurant) she's simple Zeninha (an affectionate diminuitive meaning "little Zena"). Now 65 years old, she's still at the restaurant every day, where she's assisted by her only daughter, Paula. She's been married for more than 30 years, and tells all that she is "a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and only then a cook."

In the interview Dona Zena spoke of her joys and sorrows during her life, and what the restaurante means to her and to her customers. Here are some excerpts from that interview (translation by Flavors of Brazil):

On her childhood and upbringing:
I was born in Quixadá (a small town in the interior) in 1947. My story is difficult, we were a humble family. I was the backbone of my family. I am the daughter of parents who separated, and as the oldest child, it was I who raised the younger children. Including me, we were eight children.
When my mother brought the children to live in Fortaleza, my father stayed in the interior, he never took much care of us. He found another woman there and my mother remarried here. Now both of my parents are dead, but of my father nothing remains but the name.

How her restaurant got its name:
[At the beginning] it had no name, it was just a corner bar... Then its name became Zen. One day a man stormed into the restaurant shouting, "Look, didn't you know there's a restaurant named Zen on Barão de Studart Avenue?" It turned out even though my restaurant was older than the other Zen, he had registered the name and I hadn't. I was so sad, but a customer of mine said to me, "Just put an -a on the end of the name and turn Zen into Zena." So I did, and now we've had this name for 20 years.

Her recipe for meatballs:
It was a gift from God, really. One my customers, pregnant at the time, worked nearby at Teleceará. One day she said to me, "Zeninha, I had a dream that you made meatballs for me made this way..." and told me the recipe. I replied, "Woman, I've never made anything like that in my life. Are you crazy? I only know how to make steak. I've never tried anything like that recipe." But then Chica, my assistant in the kitchen, picked up some ground meat and finely chopped up the vegetables just like in the dream. Man, it was pure love on a plate. If you put your trust in God, it'll work out. Making meatballs without eggs, without breadcrumbs, nobody cooks that way. Just here at Dona Zena.

Her hopes:
For peace, no? For my daughter to be happy. I don't ask for anything for myself, no. I live through and for my daughter. Everything I have belongs to her. Money is good, for sure, but it's not everything. I know how to make money. My only worry is being the best at what I do.


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