content note: recreational drug use
Mandioca is a plant, a brown root, one of the few ingredients of Brazilian cuisine that has always been in Brazil, even before colonisation. It is conjoined with Indigenous culture, both in our recognition of mandioca — as plant and myth — and the way we prepare it. It can be eaten like a potato; it can be turned into flour, into bread and pasta; it becomes tapioca, to be eaten sweet or salty; it can even be turned into drinks, still or alcoholic, chibé, tucupi or cauim. Mandioca is the most versatile ingredient I know, and it took me a long time to realise it, probably because I failed to recognise what it meant for myself.
Sometimes, on the road, you find people so inextricably like yourself, and you’re surprised, because it had been a while and after heartbreak you thought you wouldn’t again.
I met Maya once before, and we bonded quickly but transiently, but now we’ve shared an overwhelming experience together, where one of its most enduring realisations was that I knew her deeply, or rather intuitively, as if I had grown up with her and for the longest time we’d existed together. Then, at some point in our childhood, we’d separated, without pain or trauma — perhaps even without the knowledge of the separation — and lived our lives, different and separate.
Way down the road we met again, and recognized in the Other familiarity. This speaks to more than culture, class or nationality. It’s a bond in the way we think, in values related to our very abstract understandings of the world.
For the longest time, I had a hunch we’d get along. You see, Maya is my best friend’s girlfriend, and as I said, I met her once before (last year), and I had certainly heard a lot about her from him, but I don’t live in Brazil; I left my country a long time ago, to search for something — though what exactly, I couldn’t possibly tell you. Maybe I forgot — and ended up missing out on so many of the experiences my friends had here in my absence. I couldn’t, for one, ever bond with Gil’s girlfriends, and rarely ever met his friends. That is why, perhaps, I was so glad when Maya and I found common ground so nonchalantly in this experience we shared.
It happened in the mountains of Minas Gerais. We went up a few days before New Year — Gil, Maya, another two of their friends, and me. We wanted to get away, reenergise, and eat mushrooms.
Bravely, or perhaps stupidly, we almost resolved to pick the mushrooms there ourselves. The region is a hippie port, and though we aren’t, some of us felt it our duty to act as such; when in Rome…
The house was inside an old farm and there were animals roaming about, chicken, farm dogs, and cattle. Now, where there’s cattle there’s cow shit, and where there’s cow shit, there’s mushrooms. It’s simple math really.
Not so simple, however, is to forage if you’re inexperienced, as we all were. So, luckily, we didn’t. I guess it’s easier to trust men to give it to you proper, especially when you’re dealing with potentially poisonous stuff.
I always wondered if the reason mushrooms can make you both trip and die is because they grow so close to death, and alive as they are, fungi that feed off death, they try to show us a reality much different from ours. Though they grow over the dead, they are not dead themselves, but that line is fine and timid, and if disrespected, can send you either side of life. Mushrooms are a passageway of sorts, to convene with energies we couldn’t ever feel in our regular lives, in our regular state of consciousness, energies from our past and our inevitable future.
After taking the shrooms, we decided to venture out into the farm. It was easy to realise, however, that not all of us were feeling the trip the same. Maya and I wanted to be outside. We looked at the mountains in the distance and at each other and we wanted to be there, and were in some way walking up, like Japhy Ryder and Ray Smith. Gil and the other couple had their hearts set somewhere else, and left us quickly.
So we walked some more, we traversed green fields, each their own little world, as we talked sparingly but deeply, about matters celestial and ephemeral. We felt connected, the same, our minds each our own, but our feelings very much one.
We heard a creek in the distance and felt the water on our hands — a bubble in water, swimming. A frog — and wondered if bees always feel this sort of synaesthesia, because maybe it is feeling, so much of it and at the same time, that makes animals less inclined to barter their existence.
Then, in the middle of our path, was a rock. There was a rock in the middle of our path. As we tired of walking, we pondered laying down on this rock, stranded, white and stable in the middle of our path. We were wary at first, as we didn’t want the change of action to ruin our moment. Still, we sat, we laid down, we watched the clouds, clouds cycling in their own time above us, showing us how they do it, to what end; and we closed our eyes and felt the sun dim and rise, ebullient, and when we finally stood up again, she said,
‘We were worried, but getting off the rock was so easy.’
The moment I realised how alike we were came at the end of our walk, when we reached a gate that would lead us back to the house. It was truly a divider. Up to that point we had been walking on grass. Beyond the gate, the floor was cement. We stopped there for a moment, taking account of our journey, silently closing the ritual, and preparing ourselves for what was to come, the future goodbyes, the separation.
We looked at one another again, and at the gate, she said, ‘Open sesame!’
A flood washed over me, the effects of the mushroom leaving my body, replaced by a stock of memories I’m not sure I’d ever remembered. As a child I used to say ‘open sesame’ all the time, in front of doors and elevators. I’d learned it when my mother read me the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I’d only ever said it with her, and had never heard it said by someone else. The hit from those two words in that moment was instantaneous, and, as I write it now, I almost feel it, and am glad to have left that day with that echo.
When we got back, we understood our experience had truly been our own. While the others were showered and eager for the night, we had just realized how much we loved mornings and the sun. It felt to us like they hadn’t completed the experience, and were unable to coalesce the moment. Maybe they never got up from their rocks. We did. Perhaps because we were together, or because we’d always been.
We knew we had stayed outside for hours, but were surprised by how many (five), and once we were told the time, we instantly got hungry. She cooked, without a moment’s hesitation, tapioca, and as I saw her cooking, I wanted it too.
Eating tapioca, I always remember when I had it the first time, in Amazonas, at that unknowable age, when all is magnified and ethereal. I had gone with my family in one of those trips where the aim is to go into the forest, though not deep enough so there’s never real danger. A friend of mine went to the Sahara once, to camp in the desert. At night, when he needed the bathroom, the Bedouin guide told him to walk backwards from the camp, until he felt far enough away to do the deed, but never to break sight of where he must return to, because it’s easy to get lost in the dunes and it would be pointless for them to search for him if he did.
Obviously that’s not all true, what the guide said; the liability would be too grand. But that’s sort of what you want in these types of adventures, you want to be told the danger exists, though never truly be in line for it, and then you feel accomplished somehow, as if you’d not only had a fresh experience, but also achieved something that’s so enigmatic for city folk. I reckon that’s what my parents wanted to offer me when we went to Amazonas.
The first tapioca I ate came at the end of that trip. Tapioca, I realize I haven’t told you yet, is a flour, and at the same time, a sort of crêpe. It is quite bland on its own, but you eat it like a taco, though with much less stuffing because not everything agrees with tapioca. The first one I had was stuffed with ham and cheese and it was true and felt like nothing I’d ever had before. It’s a simple flavour by itself, but gets magnified as a complement, and the texture is equal parts elastic, grainy and dry.
To get tapioca, you must skin the mandioca, grate it and press it inside of a tipiti — an indigenous tool made out of straw, which extracts the juices from mandioca — separating it into flour and tucupi manso (the juice), which you must collect as it leaves the tipiti. In the tucupi manso, after you let it rest for a few hours, the liquid will come to the top, while a white paste — gum, we call it — will sink and bind at the bottom. The liquid is poisonous, but fermented and cooked, becomes a drink, called, simply, tucupi. The paste, dried and strained, becomes tapioca, almost a flour, which, when put over heat, binds again, in whatever shape you set it, and becomes a crêpe.
I saw my mother doing it once when I was very little. Only when I was older, long after she had passed, did I properly learn the ritual. And it is very much a ritual, one that’s been the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, passed down in Indigenous tribes and then to colonisers and the enslaved Africans, until, in the mélange of cultures that is Brazil, it became our own culture. Alex Atala calls it the backbone of Brazil.
That day, Maya cooked herself a ham and cheese tapioca and I did the same. After the trip, I embarked on a quest to cook the perfect tapioca. Knowing, of course, that no tapiocawould ever taste as good as the first, nor the one I ate that day with her. Still, I kept notes, a food diary of sorts, as I searched for that ever elusive feeling, one I don’t fully understand, nor can I explain. Maybe I will know it when it hits me, like ‘open sesame’ did.
I’ve been writing about it since, and I learned the ritual and remembered a story my mother told me once. It’s our folklore, the story of a young Indigenous girl called Mani, who was vibrant and happy, but suddenly got sick, very sick, and lay on the brink of death. The tribe’s healer, the pajé, tried to help her, but he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, and Mani died, so very young. Her parents buried her in their home, inside the oca, and with their tears they watered the soil. One day, a plant grew in the oca, a brown root, right where Mani had been buried. The mother gave the plant her daughter’s name, and it was as if they had been reunited. As time passed, her name grew — Mani plus oca — became Mandioca.
is a writer, born in São Paulo. He has been published in Lodown Magazine, Abend(b)rot (based in Berlin), The West 4th Street Review, Dovetail, TheSportUniverse, and Confluence in New York. A graduate of NYU in Global Liberal Studies, with a concentration in Law, Ethics, History and Religion, he digs movies and music.
Copyright for all work remains with the author thereof and any requests to reprint should be made directly.
Issue 1 © SPOONFEED Magazine
SPOONFEED x New Writing © Caitlin Allen
Issue 2 © Louise Crosby