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The Crafting Of Sacred Food I - Cooking For Spirits In Afro Latin Traditions

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While other paths require very little amounts of food (or none) when making offerings, Afro Latin traditions go completely overboard when it comes to feeding Deities, Spirits, and the incredibly wide range of beings that fill our altars. Usually, this is managed by a whole community so each time a Saint/Orisha/Spirit day comes, the altar rooms become loaded with plate after plate of delicacies, along with the foods that each tradition assigns to the specific Spirit.

Cooking for a Spirit is not just cooking. The kitchen and the makers of the food must be completely clean while working, and it is required to bath and purify yourself and wear clean clothes. No other foods are prepared while doing that, and the kitchen must be constantly pristine, so while one (or more) practitioner cooks, the others wash and dry the implements. While everything is done, prayers or songs in honour of the Spirit that is being celebrated that day are repeated to bless the food. The altar and the tables where the food will be set must be prepared with the utmost care, and every plate, glass and tray are washed right before serving the food, no matter that they are already clean. After being served, more prayers are said while the Spirits feast, and usually drumming and chanting is performed in their honour.

The work of the cook and his/her helpers is not easy, and just as those who make ritual clothing or tools, or those in charge of the animal sacrifice (which is a part of many of these traditions, but not of all), they are much admired and valued by the community, because the knowledge you have to acquire to become a cook for the Spirits is not small. Each Spirit gets their favourite food, and those cooks in countries where these traditions are small can go through a lot of searching for the right meats, vegetables or spices. Some Spirits, just as people, dislike certain foods, and it would be considered a great offence to serve a Spirit anything that they don't like. While gastronomic creativity is allowed and encouraged, dishes must play with the elements traditionally related to each Spirit.

One of the most important points that show the skills of these Artisans of sacred food is that, while many dishes can be prepared beforehand, this cannot happen with animal sacrifices. Most people outside these traditions think that when a practitioner sacrifices an animal in a ritual, that animal is just thrown away. This is completely false, a fantasy created by bad horror films – only animals that have been transferred the curse of a practitioner are not considered edible, but that kind of ritual hardly ever happens on the day a Spirit is celebrated.

When an animal is sacrificed in honour of a Spirit, it is made only by someone who is an expert butcher, and that has been chosen by the Spirits for such task. Sacrifice is done quickly and cleanly, and all the blood is gathered in a vessel. Then, the animal is quickly taken to the cook, who will skin it, piece it and cook it. For anyone who has never done that – well, that process can take hours. So, the cook does not only need to have the knowledge of his/her trade, but also the knowledge of a professional butcher.

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The food is not wasted or thrown away after the Spirits have finished enjoying it. Unless the offering is made to clean a curse, all the food is considered blessed and shared by the spiritual community and their families, whom are often invited to participate. When a community is big, cooks not only have to make food for the Spirits, but also for dozens of people – attendants, priests, drummers, dancers... don't forget some ceremonies can take days, and everyone needs to eat a couple of times a day at least, so for cooks, there is very little celebrating and endless hours of work. Sometimes, it is required that some of the food is donated to a charity or simply given for free to homeless people, and non-perishable offerings like alcohol bottlesare kept and served at the altar throughout the year in single glasses, as a daily/weekly offering.

Of course, this can be made at a much smaller level, by personal choice or because there are no communities open near a practitioner. The pics you see in this post were not made by a community, but by my husband and me, so they only represent a very small version of what a whole community can do – but they also represent that the extent of such devotion can be taken to your personal practises. Actually, this post is showing you the outlines of the work done so you can emulate it in your own way – respect for the source, by giving each Spirit what they like, which takes knowledge and research; diligence and cleanliness as a sign of sacredness, and when offering your culinary creation, joy and celebration.

May this little introduction to Afro Latin spiritual cooking inspire you! In the next post, I will gather a few recipes and ideas to make the most of home-made offerings.

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Spiritist and Artisan, follower of Maria Lionza's path. Born and living in Tenerife, one of the beautiful Canary Islands, on the Northwest coast of Africa, her artwork is deeply tied to her African heritage and Latin American Spiritism.

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