Heaven may very well look like a sopas feed. Though technically the event I attended is called a St. Anthony celebration, this Portuguese-American tradition appears to boil down to getting together to eat. As you know, I support basically any gathering and eating opportunity.
Sopas (pronounced sopish and sometimes spelled soupish, at least on the Internet) means soup in Portuguese. It consists of beef cooked until it’s falling apart with onions and sometimes cabbage and is served with day old French bread soaked in the juices until it achieves a delightful mushiness.
Sopas forms the foundation of a cultural tradition that ties together the Portuguese-American community all over California. That’s right: people who don’t know each other travel from all over the state to eat together. Every weekend from June through August, you could, if you so chose, travel to a different city and participate in the sopas goings-on. All are welcome. They don’t ask for your percentage Portugueseness at the door.
Every town chooses a high school-aged queen to represent Queen Isabella of Portugal, who rescued her country from a famine. Queens from all over the state invite other queens to share in their city’s parade and celebration.
My mom and I were lucky enough to sit across from a woman who grew up very much involved in the Portuguese community. The woman confessed that the queens try to outdo each others’ dresses and intricate, hand-embroidered capes, but all the same, whether you share the parade with a poorly clad queen (of which there were none) or one who manages to upstage you, you still sacrifice the idea that you’re the only queen in town.
As the woman told her stories, I could see lines of connection threading their way through the entire state of California. Someone who lives in Bakersfield has an opinion about the way they cook sopas in Pismo Beach or San Francisco or San Diego. Whatever her opinion, she knows the cook; she knows the city; by the end of the summer, she probably knows all the queens if she’s following the circuit.
Fittingly enough, sopas is served family style. As we sat at long rows of picnic tables and waited impatiently for the big, dented, metal bowls of food to come around, I had no doubt everyone would eat her fill.