Saturday, November 17, 2007

Banishing demons

Dear friends, the time is upon us for fun and festivity!

A blogging friend reminded me of a post I wrote two years ago, one I was particularly proud of but had almost entirely forgotten. It's about the queimada, a tradition we've borrowed and adapted from Galicia in northwest Spain. A queimada in its original context is a midsummer activity, meant to happen late at night out on a quiet beach, invoking the many spells and spirits that inhabit Galician culture.

But our version here belongs to the late fall, with its lengthening nights and chill in the air. I'm going to repost part of that earlier piece here, and invite you all to join in the celebration:

Start with a big shallow bowl and a couple of bottles of orujo. Orujo (pronounced oh-ROO-ho) is a drink unique to Galicia, made from fermented grape skins, a cousin to Italian grappa. Take a careful sniff from the bottle; it’ll make your head snap back and your eyes water. As you pour it into the bowl, the fumes will rise and whisper to the whole neighborhood that you’re up to no good.

Stir in a substantial amount of sugar, the rind of an orange, and a handful of coffee beans.

Now comes the good part. This is best done in the summer, on the beach late at night under a watchful moon, but we can do it here in the bar where it’s dark and cozy. Take a shallow ladle, dip up a bit of the brew, and light a match. It won’t flare up immediately; you need to be patient, hold the match under the ladle to warm it up and coax it into flame. When the flickering blue spreads across the liquid, gently lower the ladle to touch the orujo in the bowl. Watch the licks of fire skitter across the surface, hesitant at first, then more bold.

Fire is a powerful element, but it still needs your help. If you stand back and watch, the flames will burn the alcohol off the surface and disappear. Stir it gently, and they will revive. Lift the ladle, and you can pour delicate streams of fire back into the bowl. Pass the spoon around, and let everyone stir the flames. The constantly shifting patterns of blue tipped with gold are hypnotic; there’s always a period of silence while everyone loses themselves in the mosaic of flame.

But we shouldn’t forget the purpose. The traditions of Galicia say that a queimada is to summon witches, demons, and evil spirits, so that with the proper incantations they may be destroyed in the flames. In our queimadas, we let everyone summon their own demons: too much grading. family squabbles. difficult colleagues. stupid politics. frustrating research projects. looming deadlines. too much grading.

Bring them all in the room, name them, lift them up in the ladle, and dissolve them in the fire. You can see them flame up and disappear; they don’t even leave any smoke.

Now, look back into the bowl. The flames have slowly caramelized the sugar, toasted the coffee beans, and drawn the zing out of the orange rinds. The alcohol has lost its punch-you-in-the-face potency and is now mellow and smooth. Pour a short squat shot-glass full; it will be warm in your hand. Sip, and it is sweet and potent and caffeinated; as we pass the glasses around, the atmosphere will change from quiet, intent focus to cheery babble. The demons are banished; only the friends remain.

Let's do another one this year. I've filled the bowl and lit the match; everyone is welcome to bring their demons as well as the things they're most thankful for this year. (We won't burn the latter!) Who wants to take up the ladle?

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