Saturday, August 23, 2008

Em frente, em frente vou chegar com algo quente!

8:30 AM. The moto-taxi had just dropped me off, and I was still a bit sluggish. I hadn't had breakfast and I was not quite coffee'd up.

I walked into the terreiro, and Mae Stella immediately began to provide me with a little bit of her background and describe the dishes she would be making for the Olu Baje. She generally begins to prepare for a ceremony two weeks ahead. She has four major ceremonies to prepare for each year in her terreiro. But, she has daily and weekly obligations that are essential to maintaining the terreiro. She is often called to other terreiro's to function as a Mae de Santo channeling Orixa's just as her colleague will do for her this evening. She and the other Mae de Santo will both function as Omulu, while the third Mae will receive Oxum. She now only has one spiritual godparent, her Pai de Santo. Recently, she lost her Mae de Santo. She has completed her training and is a full Mae de Santo, so the apprenticeship has been completed. The relationship is still very nurturing. She said that she will be sad to when she loses her Pai. Now she has godchildren that she is tutoring, so the cycle continues. She began her spiritual practice by initiating after her ninth birthday in 1971.

Her culinary preparation sourcing all of the necessary foods, focusing on all of the items that require special care. She smokes and dries her own shrimp to use in her "temperos" or spice mixture. Ideally, she prefers to smoke the shrimp with Canela or Cinnamon bark. Animals for sacrifice need to obtained, killed, skinned and processed. Skins and certain parts have to be dried to be used within the ceremony. Herbs for the Orixa need to be picked or obtained. When there is time she likes to pick and dry all of her own herbs. Certain leaves and branches need to be found just before the ceremony. Green branches of Pitanga, Changeiro and Fafeio need to be cut from the trees and whittled for drumsticks. Finally, cleaning and slicing of coconuts, boiling eggs, roasting peanuts and cashews, cleansing and blessing the terreiro will all take time. Giggling a bit, she tells me that in her younger years, she fished for the shrimp herself, instead of buying it from the fishermen or at the market. Pointing to the five gallon tin can in the corner, she said that for many many years, she used to gather her own palm fruit and press the oil. Everything had to be just so.
In preparing the meal Mae Stella must consider foods that will appeal to each Orixa, knowing that they all have foods that they prefer. She gave me a few examples. Xango and Iansa like quiabo or okra. "Oxum pega fraginho"; she loves beans. Iemenja loves rice, Oxumare will need a salad of cucumbers, lettuce, xuxu or chayote, cenoura/carrots and banana de terra (similar, but not equivalent to our plantain) and Omulu loves popcorn. As a blessing devotees are ceremonially washed in popcorn, which was said to have removed the pustules and scars from Omulu's body. I listen, shooting pictures while she speaks. I look in the sitting room up front. One of the younger woman has put down her knife and is dancing. I try to snap her picture she blushes, giggles turns away, covering her face with her hands. Her cohorts, hiss, "Pesquisas!- Nao se preocupe; Ele esta fazendo pesquisas." Research, don't worry, he is alright. She continues to laugh and blush.

Meanwhile, Mae Stella continues sharing her story and prep list with me, as she cooks a corn mush made from ground dried white corn and water. Once it is quite thick, she will cool it slightly, form into a pyramid and then wrap it in banana leaves to be shaped for an offering. In the end each form will be peeled, the leaves discarded and the Acaca will be placed on top of every dish prepared for the Orixa. Once the cooking is done, she will have to receive Omulu and perform in the ceremony, channeling the Orixa and dancing late into the night. Tomorrow morning, after the Olu Baje she will lead the preparation for Oxumare's birthday. He loves sweets, so I have been asked to bring soda, juice or candy for him tomorrow.I The ritual meal will be a Cozido. I had learned in Cachoeira that Cozido was a symbolic meal served by the Senhoras to symbolize the food regularly eaten by the African slaves. The parallels between home foods, historic or symbolic foods that reference the colonial period and ritual dishes prepared for ceremony is quite unique.

The only job given to a man is the gathering of leaves and branches, the whittling of drumsticks and the preparation of the instruments to be played at the service. The shirtless young man, enters the kitchen carrying his catch. He is nineteen-ish, has on rough cotton drawstring pants, a baseball cap turned sideways, a lovely jute and beaded necklace and ankle bracelets. He shoots me a homeboy smile, an air five and begins to titter and giggle. He addresses Mae Stella, with a quick embrace, pecking at her cheeks. Setting his load down, he sits cross legged on the floor and begins to whittle. He sees me jotting notes on my pad and turns towards me to explain his work. Abuptly, in the middle of his story, he stops, looks me in the eye and asks me if I am a gringo? I look a bit puzzled, hesitate trying to think of what sparked his query. "Nao." I answer slowly, "Americano do Norte, e preto come voce." He looks satisfied, turns to his saplings and finishes whittling the drumsticks

Walking back and forth through this terreiro I am continually inspired by the purposefulness put to each task. Each of the ten women and three apprentices are acutely focused on their respective tasks. The ceremonial room is redolent of the musky rich smell of the simmered goat; almost off putting since it was not skinned before being cooked. For hours the woman entrusted to prepare this meat, scrapes sinew and tendon, separating it from bone and flesh. Each ingredient is placed in separate ceramic bowls. For different periods of time the dishes are placed on the roof of the terreiro, I assume to signal the appropriate Orixa of its pending inclusion in the Olu Baje. Sand is heated over a high flame in a large stock pot. A winnowing basket is set in a large bowl and placed near the hot pot. Popping corn is added to the hot pot and then it is quickly covered. The pot is struck three or four times in rapid succession to coerce the corn to do its work. Without any fat, it is popped quickly, and drained through the winnowing basket. The sand is sifted from the corn and returned to the pot to begin the cycle over again. The nuts had been previously roasted in the same fashion. Frequently, she stops, puts down her cigarette or coffee cup, takes a deep breathe, surveying the food production or a finished dish and proclaims, "Esta Linda!" She smiles until the dimples show, reflecting her passion and devotion to her cooking and spiritual practice.

Just before I leave for my nap between the food preparation and the service she calls me to come follow her into the Orixa's chamber as she begins to decorate it with mimoca leaves and some of the dishes that she has been preparing. Before she begins to decorate the room, she removes a small ceramic dish that held chicken hearts and leaves it by the dish drain near the sink. Returning to this small room, filled with figurines, jars, ritual objects and flowers, she reaches into another small bowl containing a few cowrie shells. She throws them three times, looks around the room quite contently and happily says, "Bom." She finishes decorating the room with the mimoca leaves, pulls out a key from her bosom and quickly closes and locks the door. Back in the kitchen she taps each drum, running a quick melody over the skin to see if they are in tune. I watch her, and listen to one of the women in the corner finish her lunch break by cracking the chicken bones with her molars so that she can suck out the marrow. As I walk to the door, someone is cutting flowers for another offering and Mae Stella is calling Lucas to bring her a hammer so that she and one of the other Mae's can string a plastic tarp in the backyard in case this rain continues into the night. I hear her cry out, she has whacked her thumb and not the nail.

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