I have been quiet far too long. But it is not lack of things to say; it is more a matter of finding the time and allowing my words to marinate, to get to the right level of savory before I throw them out to the searing pan of public opinion.
Recently I was at a kariosha, never mind where. I believe what I am going to share is representative of many houses in the United States and in many countries where Santería is practiced.
The Día del Medio feast (or the feast cooked on the day of introduction to the community of an iyawó or newly initiated priest or priestess) should be a grand affair where olorishas (orisha priests and priestess), awós (Ifá priests) and aleyos (believers who have not been initiated as an olosha) come together to admire and pay tribute to the new bride of the orisha wearing his or her new regalia and seated under the protective canopy of a beautiful throne.
It is traditional to serve in this feast all of the animals that were offered to the orisha of the iyawó cooked in a creole (be it Cuban or Puerto Rican seasoned) style. Among those offerings are guinea hens, ducks, quails, pigeons, roosters, hens, goats, she goats and rams.
Running a kitchen during the process of initiation is a very tiring affair. It is an often times thankless task that includes not only cooking for a crowd of anywhere from 12 to 30 people or more as well as preparing breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinners. However cooking for fellow initiates during the course of the seven days of initiatory ceremonies is not the only thing that is under the care of the cook. On the kariosha day, the cook must also prepare the regular meals described but also supervise a crew of oloshas who will be skinning, peeling, prepping and setting the stage for the magnificent dinner expected on the Dia del Medio.
Now here is what gets me. I am sick of seeing perfectly good meat going to waste because people are too lazy to take the time to pluck, gut and prep quails, pigeons and the duck offered to Yemayá. Yes I get it; there are lots of birds to be plucked. Say we are doing a kariosha Yemayá that would imply 10 chickens (hens and roosters), at least five guinea hens, 10 pigeons, two quails, five four-legged animals and the tasty and little appreciated duck.
Why are we wasting a yummy duck when you would pay up to $40 for the same bird at a restaurant? Why are we disposing of pigeons and quails as if though their flesh, once depleted of its life giving blood has no nourishment value?
I will give you a few reasons. Laziness tops the list. Lack of skills preparing said birds is another. Finally, lack of discipline as one must sit in quiet while plucking the duck. Yes, plucking a duck requires tenacity, patience and a shut mouth. Hmmm, that last one is a hard thing to ask to most iyaloshas who use the time to pluck birds to catch up with conversation.
Going back to Mr. Duck, this noble bird is the star of a couple of interesting apatakis or stories. One story is linked to the odú odí melli (7-7). In odí melli Yemayá Asesú, who eats duck or kuekueyé in companion with the eggún, is said to love to count the feathers of the duck offered to her. However, because Yemayá Asesú is said to be forgetful, she oftentimes loses count of the feathers and must start the process all over again.
The other apatakí is related to the odú odí oshé (7-5). In this apatakí kuekueyé was cursed by orisha Erinle. This orisha was in love with Oshún, but he was married to Yemayá and the duck, who is a natural gossiper, could not help himself. He told Yemayá about the affair between Erinle and Oshún and this earned Mr. Duck the death sentence as an offering to Yemayá but not without first having his tongue cut off because of his proclivity to share his ‘knowledge’ of other people’s business. This is why before kuekueyé is offered to Yemaya during kariosha, his eyes are covered with the leaf of a Malanga this way he can’t see his killer, his throat is also severed so he can’t speak about the ceremony or about the things he knows. After the offering he is placed in a bucket with water and bluing and taken outside of the room where he is unceremoniously thrown away. Now that is what irks me!
I will be clear, not all houses work that way. I have had the honor to prepare this most exquisite bird so the iyawó can sample it during the feast on the following day. However, here is where I do not make friends because the person assigned to pluck the duck must observe absolute silence in honor of the sacrifice of Mr. Gossiper.
When one is asked to keep quiet, while surrounded by lively conversation, it is like sitting on an ant hill and trying not to scratch, yes I have a mischievous grin plastered on my face as I type these words.
I have had to pluck a duck or two in my life. Not fun. But it bothers me more to have waste. So last time I assisted during a kariosha I had a whiny helper coming back to the kitchen with a poorly plucked duck complaining there was too much to do to focus on this single bird. What did I do? I armed myself with the most patient look I could muster and then smiled and kindly requested the olosha to return and try to do a better job of not handing me a bird full of feathers, after all this meal was for a new born olosha. How could we fall short of perfection? Next thing I know, I get back the same sassy olosha coming back to me with a bright idea, to skin the duck. To skin the duck!!!! I nearly chased her out of the kitchen with a mad glare. Such ignorance! The duck is a meat that can dry out fast and it is precisely the layer of fat which will keep the delicate flavor and juiciness.
I took the bird out of her hands and stopped the task of seasoning other birds that already had made it to the kitchen. I carefully plucked the downy feathers, repaired the skin that she so carelessly had started to take off from the breast bone and prepared a most delicious marinade with exotic spices and molasses to honor my beautiful iyawó.
Next day, the scent of that duck inundated the kitchen. I could see the expression on the oloshas coming by and wondering what was the glorious scent wafting through the house. The duck was served and there was not a shred of it left. I decided to carve it and leave the carcass in the kitchen while helping to serve the other meats for the iyawó. When I came back from the igbodu (throne room) I discovered that there was not a shred of meat or juice left on the carcass. I wish I could have taken a photo of what I found: by the carcass stood one of my most beloved initiates to Yemayá, sucking impishly on his fingers after having honored kuekueyé in the sweetest of ways, leaving nothing on its bones.
If you are an olosha, next time you are working during a kariosha, be observant. Does the cook of the house prepare all birds, including the duck, quails and pigeons? And if so, are they made in different styles? Now styles of cooking, that my dear readers, is a subject for another conversation. And trust me, it is long overdue.
I leave you to chew on this one for now.
Much love to you all and my deepest appreciation to those who pluck, skin, gut and cook. They are heroes, but please don’t let good stuff go to waste.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá