Thursday, February 16, 2012

Caxiri - An Endangered Beverage

Just as many of the myriad of plant and animal species that flourish in the grand reaches of the Amazonian rain forest are threated with extinction, many of the traditions of the way of life of the Amerindian tribes that live in relative isolation in the forest are equally under threat.

For millennia the women of these tribes have had the responsibility of making a beverage called caxiri - traditionally men are forbidden to make the drink. Making caxiri is both a culinary and a religious task, because the drink plays in important role in shamanistic tribal ceremonies. Made from manioc, caxiri is allowed to ferment naturally for a few days before it is consumed, by which time it has a low level of alcohol. For the Amerindians, caxiri, when drunk, opens a pathway to the supernatural world. Both the drink, and the gourd in which it is served become supernatural entities, and when consumed, they allow the drinker access to their world.

To make caxiri, the women work communally in an isolated location, far from the men of the tribe. Using a griddle, the women prepare a large manioc crepe or pancake, sometimes 6 ft in diameter. When cooked, the crepe is cut into slices or pieces as if it were a large pizza. Then the pieces are put in a large pot and covered with plenty of water. Traditionally a half gourd filled with pineapple leaves is placed at the bottom of the pot before the crepe or the water are added. The liquid mixture is allowed to sit for a few days, during which time it naturally ferments. When the pineapple leaves float to the surface, the caxiri is ready to drink.

The recipe for this traditional ritual drink hasn't changed in thousands of years, nor has the restriction of its use to religious ceremony. What is threatening caxiri today is a result of the increasing contact of tribe members with the greater Brazilian culture and that culture's love of sugar and alcohol. Younger tribe members, many of whom have visited one of the larger cities along the rivers of the Amazon, have learned that if sugar is added to the drink before it ferments, the resulting drink has a much higher alcohol content and can be used to get drunk without thought of ceremony or religion. Or, if one doesn't want to wait even the few days that natural fermentation requires, all one needs to do is add cachaça to make a potent cocktail.

The non-ritual drinking of caxiri, especially in its more potent forms, has caused severe social problems in many tribal homelands and caused an increase in the non-traditional problem of alcohol abuse.

True caxiri, made ritually and consumed ceremonially, is under siege - the adulterated drink, often made by young men in disobedience to ritual tradition, and its use as an intoxicant threatens its original purpose as a route to spiritual enlightenment.

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