[“When did you begin? Who taught you? How long have you been working as an acarajé vendor? Do you also make Comida de Santo? Do you think your customers buy your acarajé because of quality? Or as reference to their heritage-memory-culture? Do they acknowledge belief in African religions such as Candomble? Is that their rationale for buying your acarajé? Or is it just, that it tastes good? What if anything is your relationship to the Comida de Santo?”]
Vivaldo Costa Lima, a former mentor, culinary anthropologist, ogan, and cultural leader of Bahia clearly identified acarajé as being a trope of Salvador and Bahian cuisine. Without acarajé and the women who sell them, Salvador would not be Salvador. Traditionally, these women were novitiates in various Candomblé terreiros. Some portion of their earnings went back into the terreiros to maintain the temples upkeep and overhead.
These black-eyed pea fritters cooked in smoky dendé oil are archetypical foods of Bahia and reflections of the African diaspora presence here.Cousin to a falafel they begin in similar fashion, as raw soaked beans, slaked of their skin or ‘black eye’, ground to a paste with a mortar and pestle, enhanced with grated onion and salt and then formed into an orb as large as a goose egg. Originally, once cooked they were split and spread with pimenta, a chili paste made from malagueta peppers, smoked dried shrimp and dendé oil .
“Two hundred years ago the acarajé was mentioned in the Vilhena letters as a delicacy sold in the streets of Bahia. The same dish was offered to the Yoruba divinities in the emerging candomblé houses at the beginning of the 19th century. Still today—or above all today—the acarajé is the specific ritual food of the orixa Yansan or Ojá, a divinity of the Yoruba pantheon and also of the Afro Brazilian religious system. Yansan is the goddess of the wind, of tempests and of thunder and lightening, one of the three known wives of Xangô. (In Africa she is also the divinity of the Niger River).”*
This humble street food overtly spoke of a localized African presence and subtly of food dedicated to the saints or Orixas. Please note that the popular spicy sauce is a secular amendment and not appropriate for sacred foods, comida de santo. Nago slaves from the Yoruba regions of Nigeria and Benin introduced acarajé to Brazil. Father Pierre Bouche a French Missionary to Benin, [then Dahomey] in his 1885 book, The Slave Coast and Dahomey, defined them as, “un hors d’oeuvre, presque une friandise”.
So ubiquitous was this food that women coveted particular street corners to peddle their products and certain vendors, Acarajé de Cira and Acarajé de Detina, claim to have been in business over 50 years. Some like Cira have expanded and now have several huts or barracão. Over the years the over sized fritter and spicy condiment didn’t suffice, or turf wars caused an expansion of choices to be put in-between the pillow of bready beaniness. Today’s options include: Caruru the okra stew akin to North American gumbo, Vatapá a spread of manioc flour, stale bread, cashews, peanuts, dried shrimp, sometimes sweet potatoes and dendé, a coarsely chopped raw condiment of tomatoes, onions, lime and chili and sautéed head-on baby shrimp. Most vendors often have small whole fried fish and fully cooked pork liver, and sweets such as cocada as well.
This tradition was an essential step in the maturation of young women as burgeoning entrepreneurs, supplemental providers and initiates to their Candomble terreiros. When I interviewed my friend Zeno, whose grandmother was Mãe Menininha de Gantois, internationally the most famous Mãe de Santo of the 20th century, he said she began her practice as an acarajé vendor. He estimated that she started working in Pelourinho in the Terreiro de Jesus near the Igreja de São Francisco at the end of her teens or early 20’s, stopping when his mother was born, when she was approximately 26. He continued that in his mother’s generation this trade was maligned and higher literacy was advocated. Elementary school teaching certificates and nursing degrees were the modus operandi for young Afro-Brazilian women.
Today, this differentiation via class status and educational opportunity continues. Though by the size of the lines at some of the popular sellers, it would appear that these vendors could make a profitable living, even if they are also tithing. In the last 25 years men have joined the fray and in small numbers are working the trade.
I interviewed one man: Deo, who said that he had been making and selling acarajé for 18 yrs.; previously he had held a low-level functionary job. By his description, humility and hesitation it sounded as thought he had been a street sweeper; a position-which he said gave him shame. He decided to make a switch and learned how to make acarajé. He is a Baiano, but stressed that he is married to a Baiana and she taught him, taught him well. She still helps him doing preparation in their home kitchen, but he does most of the production. She cares for their children while he works. He doesn’t work on weekends to help out at home and prep for upcoming week. Initially, he received questions and comments regarding his gender but those comments have lessened, particularly as he garnered a following. Where I found his stand was in a well-traveled area that could include enough tourists and transients to offset any odd comments. I found it intriguing that he was shamed to clean the streets and yet not shamed to take on a job with an associative gendered orientation that was not his own.
The insertion of men in women’s roles within the greater Candomblé community has received attention by numerous writers and scholars, particularly in relation to the role of babalorixá, high priest when female orixa are manifest and certain priests who are openly gay adopt strong affinities to female deities. I observed some men who gender bend their dress within the temples such that they include the pano de costa or fabric wrap around the mid-section, which protects a woman’s uterus during the religious practice. On the one hand, the openness with which Candomblé has embraced changes and allowed numerous iterations of doxia without ascribing a heteronormative mandate or a didact hierarchal methodology are commendable. The essential premise, quite foreign to Christianity that we are not bound to a simplistic binary of good vs. evil, but in fact we contain both good and evil active at all times, alters the discourse in a profound way with a simple substitution of prepositions.
The one area that currently seems in contention within the realm of acarajé practice is the rise of Evangelical vendors. As previously implied, Candomble does not require exclusivity in the orthodoxy of its practitioners; many observe certain Catholic protocols in addition to their Candomble activities. Some temples include Catholic saints along with the orixa. Yet, the line has been drawn with Evangelicals, generally referred to as Protestants. They espouse Candomblé as being akin to devil worship and animistic heathenism. Thus, the incursion of Evangelicals into the ranks of acarajé sellers appears to be a threat or plot to undermine the industry. Much like unionized labor, these vendors are registered and carry certificates, which mark their identity, participation in health code protocols and compliance with vendor and tax laws. The larger stands although managed by women had a cadre of male laborers who came late at night or early morning to disassemble the stands or bring new equipment to start the day.
At present the Evangelicals are allegedly allowing their congregants who practice Candomble to participate in both religious practices, yet consistently preach against heathenism and aspects of the praxis seen as endemic to Candomble.
One woman I interviewed Daniele-had been working 13 yrs. at that barracão. She identified that her mother-in-law had taught her the trade. When I asked her if she was or had been a novitiate, haltingly, with eyes pitched downward, looking quickly left and right she said, “no-I don’t make comida de…” and then she changed her tune and admitted that yes she does. I didn’t press her further. She continued that she feels her customers are a mix of people who associate the product with Bahia, Afro-Brazilian culture, Comida de Santo and because it tastes good. She invited me back to ‘come interview her customers as often as I please’.
Indirectly, I did just that by asking some close friends who live a few doors from her stand if they had eaten there and how they liked it. Immediately, they outed her and said that the neighborhood had issues with her participation in the Evangelical church. They suggested that her hushed tones in my interview were due to her fear that her Evangelical associates might have been within earshot.
All videos words and music by Dorival Caymmi:
Carmen Miranda, O Que é que a Baiana Tem?: youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojo3I59Gn6c
The ethno-scenology and ethnoculinary of the acarajé, Vivaldo da Costa Lima, Vibrant, vol. 7, #2, 236-248.
African Customs of Bahia, Manuel Querino, 1916/1928
A Anatomia do Acarajé e Outros Escritos, Vivaldo da Costa Lima, Editora Pallas, 2010, São Paulo.
Bahianas de Acarajé: uma categoria ocupacional em redefinição, [Baianas of the Acarajé: redefining an occupational category], Célia Braga and Zahidê Machado Neto, 1977 Salvador: UFBA
Posted by Scott Alves Barton — PhD Candidate in Food Studies at NYU