Kitchen Cosmos

Each week, we will feature a short essay from each of the Humanities Research Fellows now at work on the topic of food.  We begin with Bruce Willis, Professor of Languages, and his reflection on creation stories in the Americas.

Pots and pans, mortars and pestles, pitchers, whisks, knives: the implements for processing, cooking, and storing food represent some of the most elemental and yet creative of human inventions. Because of their familiarity through daily use, these utensils sometimes even become characters in legends, or the focus of certain traditions, of the kind my students and I examine and analyze in the Latin American Cultures course.

In Popol Vuh, the cosmology of the Quiché Maya, cooking tools famously rebel against their masters. The creation story relates that the gods needed three tries to create humankind. In the first attempt, the mud-sculpted proto-humans fell apart. In the second attempt, the mannequin-like figures made of wood could walk and talk, but they had neither heart nor mind, and could not recognize kindness and respect. They were punished by the gods, by their own dogs and turkeys (animals that were eaten), and even by their cooking utensils:

Then the grinding stones said this to them: “We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, always you did holi, holi, huki, huki on our faces. This was our service for you who were the first people. But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh,” said their grinding stones to them.

Then spoke also their griddles and their pots to them: “Pain you have caused us. Our mouths and our faces are sooty. You were forever throwing us upon the fire and burning us. Although we felt no pain, you now shall try it. We shall burn you,” said all of their pots. Thus their faces were all crushed. (76-77, trans. Christenson)

The mannequins were eventually drowned, and those few who survived became the monkeys.

El diluvio y la destrucción de los hombres de palo. (Diego Rivera. 1931. Acuarela sobre papel.)

The third try was the charm: humans were successfully amassed out of different colors of corn dough. In general terms, Mesoamerican belief systems hold that people are made of corn, and corn is kin. Even today there are those who believe that to sell corn is to sell one’s cousin, sibling, or parent–the same failure to recognize kindness and respect that doomed the wooden people.

Caribbean and Amazonian cosmologies tend to feature gourds as womb-like containers of treasured abundance. In Taino myth, for example, the ocean and all its fish are born from a dropped calabash when Deminán and his brothers try to return the gourd to its safe perch in the clouds. Cuban writer Antonio José Ponte, in his essay collection Las comidas profundas, writes of a tradition in eastern Cuba in which a gourd or a jug is kept in a secure spot out of the sun and away from animals, to be gradually filled with fruits as they come into season over the nine months of a mother’s pregnancy:

Poco a poco, entre el espíritu de la botella, figuración de Las Mil y Una Noches, y el espíritu del niño esperado, empieza a establecerse una relación muy estrecha. Todo lo dulce a la redonda, toda carne de fruta entra a la matriz de vidrio para componer un doble, un niño de tierra. La barriga de la madre y la del botellón se vuelven fermentaciones gemelas (48).

[Little by little, between the spirit of the bottle, allegory of A Thousand and One Nights, and the spirit of the expected child, a very close relationship begins to be established. All that is sweet from the surrounding area, all flesh of fruit enters into the womb of glass to create a double, a child of the earth. The belly of the mother and the belly of the jug become twin fermentations.] (my trans.)

The resulting mixture, a sangría-like drink called aliñado, is imbibed to celebrate the baby’s birth, or even stored much longer and fermented further as the child grows.

These mythological and ritual examples from the Americas blur the lines among humans, food, and food preparation utensils, as co-actors in one environment, to demonstrate an ancient truth: we are not only what we eat or drink, but also the embodied practice of how we prepare and consume it.