Monday, August 25, 2008


Sunday 24-August

Mae Stella, garbed in her white dress and head wrap was on the porch coming up for air around 12:40 AM after the ceremony, talking to random congregants and smokers. She drifted back in the side entrance, past the drying goat skins to thank us for coming; and let me know that if I was interested, she-they would be making a meal for Oxumare's birthday the following afternoon. "Voce pode chegar depois do deis horas; ta bom?" I was down. Lauri and Nathan had video taped the ceremony, and Lauri said she was game for more. Somewhere between 10:40-11:15 on Sunday we trekked over the rutted road behind Sacatar, and up the steep hill to the terreiro. Perennially anxious that I might miss something, I was in a hurry to get inside. When we walked into the ceremonial room, half of her lieutenant's from last night were dozing on straw mats laid out on the floor. They were all huddled together as though we were in a northern clime and they needed each other's body heat to keep warm. I quietly, I thought that we had rushed for nothing. I watched them come slowly to wakefulness, play tricks with each other, whispering and laughing amongst themselves. Augusto arrived soon afterwards, with his young buddy, Mateus. We sat together and discussing last night's festivities here and at the Festa da Sao Roque.

Out back, the Mae who had been mounted by Nana was working with Simon to prepare the Cozido. They told us that they had been braising the meats and temperos for two hours. Periodically, one of them would check the glowing charcoal under the brazier, while the other poked the different cuts of pork and beef to assess their timing. Unlike the stews that I am used to at home and in professional kitchens, these meats were not cooked until the meats fell from their bones. They were left with a bite that caused every eater to be forced to gnaw a bit, and accept their carnivorous nature. Possibly the Carne Salgado, or salted meat introduced by the colonial Portuguese never became fully tender unless it was soaked for long periods, with frequent water changes. Like salt cod it tended to have a toothy mouth feel, from the process of salting and sun drying. Whichever the reason, it was closer to rawhide than velvet. The salting added an intensity of flavor to the caldo or broth, something essential for a dish as old as slavery, that generally had good flavor and very small amounts of actual flesh. Approximately, forty five minutes after we arrived, some chickens were added to the pot. In between, the stirrings, we walked inside to keep a pulse with the crew. Lauri jumped on her video cam, and I gave her space and a clear field to shoot. Mae Stella came and went, moving between the backyard, the ceremony room and her bedroom. I assumed that she was somewhat drained from last night. She was quieter and more reserved today.

I went to the street for air, and began chatting with one of her assistants and her "lover(?)" who had dropped by. Young children and the tweenage apprentices ran in and out of the house full of pent up energy. I heard noises from the front room, and then the stereo was cranked up. Like teen homegirls after the latest Teddy Pendergrass or Luther single, all of the devotees rose from their nests and went to dance ecstatically to a series of songs about Oxum. I appreciated the honeyed melody and I poked my head in to watch. One of the women, who had screeched with joy when I arrived last night, was dancing and sucking her thumb. They played a few tunes over and over again, until someone switched the disc to Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff. This Germanic choral classic, though also quite inspirational, is quite a mood wrecker relative to their current playlist. Everyone was now all up and about. I watched as the women took turns brushing out their hair, primping, giggling and gossiping amongst themselves. The one man, yesterday's whittler, ran to and fro with a devilish grin and a bawdy laugh. Everything seemed to fit into the vibe of a lazy Sunday at home.

Returning to watch the yard I shot some pictures of the cook's quartering heads of cabbage to set into the Cozido as a buffer between the simmering meats and all of the vegetables that were now being added. First the hardiest root vegetables were added, peeled but whole: Iame, Cebolla, Manioc and Batata Doce. Fifteen minutes or so later, the ropey rusty colored Calabresa sausages were delicately removed from the pot with a long cooking fork. Then more vegetables were added. First came Cenoura, Xuxu and Obobora; (carrot, chayote & calabash). Finally twenty minutes later, she added the Quiabo (okra) and Tomates. The vegetables were gently pressed down, so that they were swimming in the rich broth while the fire was carefully tended to stay just at a simmer, to keep the bubbling liquid from upsetting the meticulous arrangement that had just been created. They told me that everything would be ready within an hour. I walked back to the front room and sat on the sofa, absorbed in the activities, dancing and making pretty of the devotees.

There, I noticed that the woman, who had been so shy yesterday, had finished combing her own hair and had called a young girl to have her hair brushed and combed. I photographed them together and then asked the woman, if this was her child. She replied, yes; she was her daughter. "How old is she," I inquired. "Ela tem cinco anhos." (--She is five). "Oh, ok, e quantos anhos tem voce?" I continued." She spoke quietly and quickly bending over the child, her words were garbled to my ear. I thought that she had said Trinta, or 30. But, there was something more. I asked her to repeat herself. Again, I heard "Trinta, {..............?}" Questioning her response, I replied: " Voce me disse trinta. Trinta anhos?" "Nao, dias. Eu tenho trinta dias." I repeated this response to myself, checking my vocabulary. Now sure of what I had heard, I repeated, "Trinta dias. Voce tem trinta dias? Como sera posivel--Um mez?" 30 days, Did you say 30 days, How is that possible,-- One month? She giggled, then rejoined, "Agora tem um anho! Sim umo."....... "Ok". I said to myself. "What is going on? First she says one month and now one year. I sat for a moment, to absorb her staement and my impression of her true age. Bewildered, I went to the back to look at the Cozido and ask Augusto.

He and Lauri were sitting and chatting with Mae Stella. Some new congregants arrived and prostrated themselves at her feet. I used this opportunity to pull Augusto aside and explain my recent conversation. Immediately, he asked, "Who were you speaking with?" I began to describe the woman, her dress,--"No!" He stopped me. "I mean, were you talking to the woman or to the Orixa?" I said, "What, do you mean?" He began, "Well it sounds like you just met the Orixa that has mounted her in their child state." "I, what?" I asked Lauri if she followed his logic. She interjected that she had been seeing and filming odd reactions and dialogues between the different congregants. I looked hard at Augusto, and walked to the backyard perplexed. By now, the vegetables were all tender and slightly al dente. Each variety was placed in its own ceramic bowl. The meat were removed, and the two women began to prepare the Pirao. An interesting distinction between this stew and those I have made or sampled is that the broth is drained and used to cook a mush made of Manioc Flour. Thus, there is no liquid to the "stew", and a starchy rich mash is added to each portion. Still thinking about my conversations with the woman, and Augusto I sat back to think while the cook's carried all of the ingredients into the kitchen.

By now, it was close to 3:00 PM, and everyone was anxious to eat. The backyard was cleaned, swept and mopped by the diligent cooks while the finishes were put to the Cozido by Mae Stella. Everyone was seated around the periphery of the ceremonial room, sitting patiently. Two or three plates at a time, Mae Stella brought out the Cozido, serving the youngest children first. The advent of the meal had caused all of her lieutenant's to sit between the straw mats crosslegged, whining for food. She brought out one plate, and began dangling a piece of bacon, a link of sausage or vegetable in the air as each hungry devotee clamored for their piece. If I didn't know better I would say that she was feeding caged animals or toddlers. As they each received a morsel from her plate they cooed, and showed their prize to their neighbors before devouring it in a bite. She returned to the kitchen and brought out a plate for each one. They howled with ecstasy. Once they had been fed, the cook's helped her divvy out plates to all of the remaining guests. We all ate noisily, with a few asking for seconds. Once the meal was finished, Mae seemed drowsy, her chin dropped briefly to her chest, before she rose and quickly disappeared to her bedroom.

Five minutes later she returned in a new outfit of red checked pedal pushers, a smocky shirt and matching cap. Two steps into the room, and everyone cried for joy. She screamed, "Doces, refrescantes; estou com sede!" Hmm, I thought. She ran out the room, animated and agitated until she saw me in the corner. Pleading and whining, "What did I have for a present? Did I bring sweets? Where were they? Did I have soda..? Get it now!" I turned to Augusto, he said, "You remembered last night's promise, right?" I replied, "Yes, I gave them a large bottle of Guarana when we arrived." "Go. Get it now. She wants it." I ran up the six steps to the kitchen, and ask the cooks who were still cleaning up. They looked nervously at me, then said, " We have already served it." One turned to the other, then reached up to the thin shelf near the window for a key. She quickly opened the house of the Oxumare off of the kitchen and came back with a 2 Liter bottle of Coke, and said, "Aqui, pode dar este a ele." I took it, and went back down the stairs. Wait, she said, "I could give it to H-I-M.(?)" Mae saw me coming and jumped up and down, laughing and grabbing for my soda. She took it, opened it and guzzled a hearty gulp. Burping, she told me that I had done well. I sat down, looking first at Lauri and then at Augusto.

All the dynamics changed abruptly. My buddy from yesterday, the large older Mae who had made me coffee, came running in, not in her white Baianan dress, but in a scarlet shift, tied at the waist with a matching headwrap. She cackled loudly and jumped from the stairs onto the cement floor. Everyone screamed for joy. First sucking on her thumb she settled near her cohorts, occasionally shouting and laughing loudly. They followed her lead, bobbing up and down, in anticipation of I don't know what. Then, the one young man came in with a canary yellow outfit, similar to Mae Stella's. He ran toward his friends, sliding into the mat like a homerun slugger. Next, Mae or whoever she was was at the top of the stair with a bag in each hand. "Doces! TENHO Doces!. Quem estao com fome pra doces? Sweets, I HAVE Candy. Who is hungry for sweets? Her group started barking and screaming like wild dogs. They gathered in the center of the room, over the Fundamento, jumping and jostling each other for space. At first one by one, and then in fistfuls she threw out hard candies and sweet treats, waiting after each feeding to see who had run fastest to catch the booty and fight for the few pieces skittering to the corners. The young children were out classed and disorientated. Augusto turned to us, and whispered, "NOW, do you see?" Lauri said, "I have seen it all. I thought I had seen something last night, but this is wilder than any possession." "OK, look", he said. "Oxumare has mounted her. It is his birthday. He is a man, and his favorite food is sweets. He is impetuous like a child. He brings out the youthful Orixa in all of the initiates." As he explained the scene more candy was thrown round, some landing in our laps. We had to grab and hide it before someone else came to snatch it. Every so often Oxumare/Mae made a point of making sure that the children had received their due.

We were now in fult tilt boogie. The children and possessed adult/kidlings ran and shouted, aped childlike behavior, teased one another; but honored anything that Oxumare said or did. Tired of his game, Oxumare came over and asked Augusto if he would hold onto the remaining candy for her. He smiled and nodded in agreement. She turned, ran to tap on the drums, then began galloping, dancing around the room. Once her back was turned the young man in yellow came over and tried to take her candy. Defiantly, he reached into Augusto's lap, shouting, "This was mine. I am taking it, now." Augusto looked into his eyes, paused before saying, "Why don't we ask Mae?" He called out, Mae, Ox-u," when she turned toward us, ran over and pushed yellow-man out the way. "This is mine. Leave now!" He abuptly ran away. Moment's later, one of the thumb sucking devotees, was fully mounted, crouched down and bellowed just like last night. Her face and hands became animated as she rose up growling and scampering in circles. Now coaxing and prodding the mounted woman, the room quieted; as the others began to be mounted more forcefully. This time, each one was removed from the scene resurfacing shortly as their child persona.

Once things simmered down, we decided to leave. Mae came toward us, acting as if this was just another day back at the ranch. She asked me if I had enjoyed the Cozido and had tasted last night's Olubaje? I nodded affirmatively. As she invited me to return tomorrow at five for another ceremony, the woman who had been forcefully mounted walked up, with her left thumb in her mouth. Her right hand was full of popcorn. She looked deep into my eyes as she opened my right hand with her moist one. She opened her right hand, letting the popcorn cascade into my palm. She folded my hand into a fist, with both of her hands. Softly, she whispered a phrase or song, then opened my hand and closed it three times, repeating the phrase. As she finished, she looked up at me, for acknowledgment. Obviously still flummoxed, Augusto interjected, "She is giving you a blessing. You must keep the popcorn for three days and then toss it in the ocean. Show her that you understand." I nodded, and tightened my fist. We hugged and kissed Mae Stella, then thanked the cook's and said goodbye to the devotees, all now childlike once more.

Walking back to Sacatar, Lauri kept reiterating how we had seen so much more than what we had experienced in last night's ceremony. I agreed. There had been a subconscious level of expectation that came with the ritual, its costumes and the cover of night. Now, this seemingly innocent Sunday afternoon had opened up exploding into a waking dream or a somehow sober acid trip. There was a lot to learn.

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