I’m reading the fascinating Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and was quite taken by the myth of Mani, the magic baby girl born of a vigin birth who died after a year of life. Where she was buried a plant grew and all the birds of the forest came to eat this plant. The people ate her and became drunk– so goes the Amazonian story of fermented cassava or manioc beer. There is a recipe in the book for Manioc, and I am tempted to try it.
Early fermentation was always seen as miraculous– a gift of the Gods. This is universal. How much more so this must be when the fermentable sugars come from a starchy plant like the cassava, which contains cyanide when raw. Manioc is akin to chicha– the boiled grain is chewed and saliva converts the starch to fermentable sugar. It’s a family activity, this chewing. I have tried it with my brewer friend, Bob, and have written about that in a previous post in this blog.
The traditional ritual of brewing manioc requires a “slayer” as well as the brewer (always a woman) who will acknowledge the being-ness of the plant– it’s soul. The intimacy of mastication as part of the process, and the metaphor of flesh (of a baby in the case of Mani!) is reminescent of communion as well as the English folk song, John Barleycorn– so appropriate this time of year, especially around rural Yorkshire, where the evidence of the harvest gilds the landscape.
For the first time in my life, I have a small space to grow things. I tried to grow vegetables this summer, which felt more like winter. If I had to live on what I grow, I would starve. Only one tomato plant flourished; I babied by bringing inside and it has taken over my tiny kitchen. And the rosemary, which I planted over a year ago from seed: it waited 8 months, refusing to come up in the old rental house and only showing itself once we were rooted in our own home. I always dismissed the idea of talking to plants as a fantasy from my 1970s childhood. But growing food taught me that plants have their own desires and wiles and a green thumb (which I do not have) requires not only knowledge of the “Gardener’s Question Time” type, but a knowing, the way one knows a friend.
I lied. When I was very, very little my family had an allotment. I remember digging in the ground with my father and I asked him if that is where he found me. This is one of my first memories, and perhaps one of the reasons the legend resonates.
Octoberfests are coming up everywhere– a last hurrah of the harvest season, a time intimately related to life and death. I might go looking for cassava in the Leeds market, which feels a bit like an outpost for stranded expats and old locals who remember it in its heyday, but that is a subject for another post. If I find the cassava, who will chew it with me?