Friday, July 30, 2010

Fear, Gifts and Sacrifice: When The Coconut Cracks

Do you know the name in Spanish for the bogeyman, the legendary monster of childhood nightmares? South of the border the bogeyman is known as "El Coco". This nondescript creature used to scare children is also known as "El Cuco", the same name given to the devil. The word "coco" also alludes to the head. In Mexico, the saying "Le patina el coco" (his coconut slides) roughly translates as someone that has a few loose crews. A good knock to the head is also known as a coco or coscorron. "Dale de coco" means to use your brain, to put some effort into something. When the Spaniards saw coconuts they believed them to resemble little heads - so "Coco" is also the name in Spanish for delicious coconut fruits. Yes, botanically coconuts are fruits, not nuts. How nuts is that? And have you ever noticed how coconuts have "eyes" and a "mouth"?

Coconuts as Offerings and Sacred Guardians
For many cultures, the effort it takes to open a coconut is a symbol of overcoming difficulty and obstacles. It also teaches humility. Have you ever met a person that is never wrong? Their heads are hard as coconuts! Many cultures use coconuts as divine offerings. The picture below comes via Sri Karunamayi's page. It shows fresh coconut water used as an offering during a ritual. Sri Karunamayi (also known as Amma) is a spiritual leader that is also known as "the hugging saint". During Thaipusan , a festival in India, people also perform a coconut smashing ritual.

In Santeria, coconut shells are used for divination. Coconuts are also offered to Elegua, the deity that resides between crossroads. Elegua (also known as Eshu) is a mysterious fellow that is congruent to Hermes and Loki from Greek and Norse mythologies. He is the messenger of the gods, a trickster, and a road opener. In the Santeria tradition Elegua controls both fortune and misfortune. In her book Jambalaya, author and ritualist Luisah Teish describes the preparation of a coconut that serves as a protective guardian to be kept behind a person's front door. Writer Migene Gonzalez-Whippler also narrates a ritual that prepares a coconut ebbo (a gift) for Elegua, that also serves as a love spell. Five different liquors and candies are used to stuff a dry coconut. It serves as a symbol for making a person's head "drunk" with love for the one preparing the coconut. The following image of a coconut offering to Eleggua comes via Year in White, a site about news and general discussions about the Santeria faith.

Not too long ago, while visiting the big Island of Hawaii I was lucky enough to visit Kalapana, what once was a famous and beautiful black sand beach called Kaimu. The eruption of the Kilauea volcano in 1990 and 2008 destroyed most of the Hawaiian village and buried the beach under petrified lava. A local woman mobilized the community to create a new coconut grove. New coconut plantings will replace the ones destroyed by the lava. In a way, her efforts served as coconut gifts for future generations to enjoy. At the new Kaimu beach I took a photo of a simple offering that was left on the beach. It was a coconut and a flower lei, possibly for Kali, Goddess of the volcanoes. The lava flow has not stopped. That night me and my boyfriend hiked to see the lava flow at Kalapana. The stars shone bright, and the red river of lava was both creation and destruction. It was an experience I'll cherish for the rest of my life.

The Challenging Art of Opening a Coconut
Coconut is one of those foods that people either love or hate. I get a feeling that if people really dislike the sandy, extremely sweet and dry coconut bought out of bags - or they are reminded of the smell of the chemical synthetic coconut used in lotions. Fresh young coconut is really delicious, and coconut water is clean and refreshing. I'm not going to lie to you - opening a coconut is hard work. It is better to do it at your leisure, not while you have guests waiting for cocktails. See is a challenge - anyone can open a can, but opening a fresh coconut is a ritual, a metaphor for overcoming obstacles. You'll need the following materials:

  • One dry coconut, clean of mold or other impurities
  • A large clean napkin
  • A clever or a large knife
  • A mat or towel
  • A canvas bag (for an alternate method)

So, going back to the "little head" I described at the beginning of this post: The "mouth" of the coconut is the softest part, it is located right at the seam below the "eyes" of the fruit. You need to locate that seam and crack it open by hitting it really hard with the cleaver. In order to not hit your hand by accident, wrap the napkin around the coconut and create a "handle" as shown in the picture.

Now, follow the seam you located earlier to the equator of the coconut. Using your cleaver, start hitting the seam all around. If you don't have a cleaver, use the blunt side of a large knife.

Place a mat or towel on your counter, for stability. You can also work on the floor, outside. Continue hitting the coconut choosing the weakest part - the "mouth", located right below the "eyes" and following the seams all around. This may take time, but you will eventually weaken the seam. Start hitting the coconut with harder blows using the clever, you could also use a hammer. After several vigorous blows, the coconut will crack.

A word of caution: If you have absolutely no practice in the kitchen (or using tools like hammers) don't do this! For an alternative method place the coconut inside a sturdy canvas bag, go outside, and smash the coconut against the floor (or a wall or a rock) until it cracks open. You may loose the coconut juice, but you'll be less likely to hurt yourself.

Usually fresh young coconuts have lots of clear juice. This juice is combined with oil and flesh from the coconut to create what is often considered "coconut milk". Dry coconuts may have some juice left before all the water has fully been absorbed into the flesh. You can use this water for drinks and for cooking. Be careful - if the coconut smells sour, don't drink the juice! Once the shell has cracked, you can drain it as shown in the picture and save the coconut water for later. You can also drill a hole in one of the "eyes" and drain the coconut beforehand.

Enjoy your reward - using a spoon separate the white flesh from the shell using a spoon or a knife. Bake the coconut halves for 15 minutes If you are having a hard time taking the flesh out. Clean the coconut flesh by separating the brown spots from the shell with paring knife.

So, don't be afraid of El Coco. With some planning, patience and practice, you'll overcome obstacles in no time.

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