Meaning to Eat by Antonio José Ponte

BOMB 78 Winter 2002
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A culinary custom in the eastern part of Cuba identifies human life with the life of food. This is the custom of preparing an aliñeado. With this brew, the miracle of fermentation enters the house of a pregnant woman.

They find a dark and quiet spot where neither the sunlight nor the dog’s curiosity can reach and there, into a large bottle, women and children begin tossing pieces of chopped fruit. It isn’t necessary to top the bottle off at once: the point is filling it over the course of the nine months of pregnancy, as one fruit after another comes into season. The point is that children climbing trees will think to steal a little for the aliñeado.

Added to the pieces of fruit are leavening, sugar, water, chunks of sugar cane. Some families throw in handfuls of rice as during the bride and groom’s exit from the church, believing that by doing so they are strengthening a symbol. The men bring to the aliñeado one or more bottles of cane liquor. Those bottles bear the recipe for decomposition, the ancient secret of fermentation, and guide the aliñeado, lead it along the way. One might presume that the masculine qualities of the baby yet to be born derive from the alcohol, and the feminine from the fruit. Later on, the chunks of fruit will be found to be corrupt and the alcohol weak.

Slowly, between the spirit of the bottle—the image of One Thousand and One Nights—and the spirit of the anticipated child, a very intimate relationship is established. All sweetness turns to roundness, all the fruit goes into the glass womb to produce a double, a child from the earth. The mother’s belly and that of the large bottle grow to be twin fermentations.

At first the aliñeado is nothing more than fruit in suspension, the forest locked in a laboratory. Then, rising from the glass bottom, the snorts of a dying animal infuse everything with fermentation. When the pregnant woman cannot fall asleep, she listens to the fluttering of a moth, the scratching of a small mouse that appears and then scampers off, and she comes to hear the bubble that ascends until it pops. A minor life, neglected during the day, now begins to murmur. In her belly too the fetus shows signs of life.

The sunken forest, flooded, presses against the glass belly, seeks the bottle’s breach. The large bottle is lit up by fireworks—lightning bugs, specks of phosphorescent pollen pass through it. Inside, everything moves around and around, turns, just before the implosion, into a tornado.

The woman who can’t fall asleep finds herself between two abysses: in the window, stars and silent planets, and in the kitchen, the microscopic odyssey of fermentations. The moth’s work and the work of the mouse have brought it close to her, made it nearly her own. Roaming constellations, stellar putrefactions: everything expanding without a care.

The family watches over those two parallel bellies, wishes the pregnant woman would lead the patient life of a bottle in its corner. The family attributes talismanic qualities to the bottle, fears a crack in the glass, a violent jolt.

They will drink the aliñeado when the baby is born or at its baptism. As it keeps well for years, children of certain memory-strong families will bring bottles to their wedding as a dowry and will mix the two bottles for the aliñeado of their first-born child.

An advanced science, half genetics and half oenology, might be able, with one glass of those successive alcohols that pass from one generation to the next, to reconstruct the incarnations of an entire family. Fruits from harvests long ago survive in that glassful that contains more remains than the stomach of a shark. A Goethe would compose the chorus of the old cauldrons that awaken and redouble that which sleeps in the fruit, the chorus of the mothers of the forest. The mother of the prú is what, in eastern Cuba, they also call the bottle of old prú, a beverage brewed of roots, indispensable in the preparation of a new prú.

The mother of the prú teaches us that there is no beginning. However ancient the brew might be, it is never the first, for it bears the residue of a previous prú. Adam, or whatever the first man was called, was not born of woman; in the beginning he was without a bellybutton. In contrast, the prú has always had a bellybutton, a container, handling, a mother. It is anonymous, so natural that no one could have invented it—ancient caves dripped with prú—for who could be old enough to have done so? And we should presume its antiquity to be equal to that of the world.

Aliñeado and prú, crystal clear metaphors for human evolution, for history, erase their own origins. Just like all metaphors for history, they lead to its uselessness, to eternity. The Cuban who eats and seeks continentality appeases his appetite for a time as well, working a Mésopotamic depth. In a sip of aliñeado or prú one can catch the shiver of that which has no beginning, of that which is eternal.

But best of all Cuban gastronomic metaphors is the ajiaco stew. From one moment to the next, a bowl of such stew can turn into the mouth of a well, a narrow, deep entranceway to another world, a dark mirror in which to make predictions. Fernando Ortiz came to see in ajiaco all the ethnic mixtures, all of Cuban history and culture. (Congrí, the blend of black beans and rice, or even better, moros y cristianos, Moors and Christians, explains the Arab-Andalusian palace where Charles awaited the pineapple.)

Various sugars, sacks of coal, cinnamon, café con leche, and paper for making cartridges had all been used to represent a variety of ethnicities. But no metaphor managed to include them all, no domestic metaphor embraced the whole of the island. It had to be a slow dish, a large pot that would break down the most heterogeneous ingredients from the beginning of time. A dish/well that yields—just like an excavation—hicatee bones, chunks of iron, the misty pap where the forest dissolves, the delectable muck at the bottom of the pot, coral gratings where land ends and the gargling of the tides begin, and the island pot, Great Nganga, is transformed at the foot of the Lady of Charity of Cobre into the boat of the three Juans, black, brown, and white.

Fernando Ortiz understood ajiaco to be the boiling of instantaneous intersections, an atomism for promiscuity. He understood the decomposition and amalgamation of ashes we will produce even in death, mingling at the heart of the imagined island. If Cuba is an ajiaco, it is there that we imbibe the very broth that cooks us, knock against one another, exchange juices, become so fragmented as to end up dissolved, illegible.

No text links life and sacrifice, human life and food, as does the Shatapatha-Brahmana, a sacrificial treatise from ancient India. In it one reads the following:

Bhrigu was a saint. He possessed an enormous Brahmanic wisdom and this, dangerously, had gone to his head. His father was the god Varuna and Bhrigu was now so arrogant that he dared to place himself above Varuna. The latter, in turn, wished to show to Bhrigu how little he still knew and to this end he recommended that Bhrigu visit the regions of heaven, one after another.

The regions of heaven numbered four and matched the cardinal directions. Bhrigu had to travel through them and then render accounts to his father. He headed east. In the eastern heaven he found men who chopped the limbs off other men with hatchets and then passed these severed members around. Bhrigu approached the hatchet bearers, asked them why they were doing this, and learned that the men were carrying out their revenge because previously, in the world of the living, the other men had treated them in the same fashion.

Then he journeyed to the south and in the southern heaven he encountered the very same situation: men who were cutting off the limbs of others. Bhrigu’s curiosity compelled him to repeat his question in the southern heaven and he discovered that they too were guided by vengeance.

So he went to the west, where quiet but equally belligerent people devoured others without uttering a single cry. As these people no longer had any words, Bhrigu was forced to communicate with gestures. So he learned that the third heaven was also one of vengeance. (If that were not the case, why waste one’s time imagining heaven?)

Finally, Bhrigu headed for the last of the four heavens, the northern one. This was the noisiest of them all, in which two enemy bands shouted and those who succeeded in biting the others to the point of devouring them had, in this last heaven, their revenge.

At the conclusion of this journey of initiation, Bhrigu wondered where the door of such an initiation could lead. He hastened to present himself before his father. Varuna urged him to present what he had learned. Bhrigu looked at him in bewilderment, about to burst out laughing, for what lesson could be derived from those four scenes?

“Then you have failed to understand,” Varuna concluded.

And he deciphered for his son each of the four enigmas. The men who were hacking in the east had once been trees and now they were chopping the woodcutters. In the southern heaven, old animals carved their butchers while in the east, mute vegetables fed on men. The noise in the northern heaven was that of flowing waters. There, human beings were drunk by the water.

Varuna gave his son Bhrigu the secret of the four celestial realms as well as the knowledge of the sacrifices necessary for preventing what he had witnessed in his journeys. For the food men eat in this world, says the Shatapatha-Brahmana, will eat them in the next.

Food versus men, that enmity intuited in childhood when we were faced with dishes we didn’t like, fills the four heavens of India. A poem by Luis Marré lists the lands that (in the ’60s) preceded those four heavens. The poem is entitled “We Eat the Earth”:

That bread was kneaded with wheat from the USSR. The rice came from China. The lentils were sown in old Spain. The vegetables were harvested in the Güines Valley. The meat was sliced from the loin of a calf in Camagüey. This salt is a dream of the Atlantic in the salt mines of Isabella. The spices—do they still come from those famous Islands? We drink water from a well. We haul it up with a small quarter-horse (motor). The well is made of blue serpentine rock and lies at the foot of a lemon tree.

We eat the earth, we laugh with our mouths full, the beer clings to our mustaches, another mouth takes a swig, we exchange saliva. The sun enters our bodies, we eat the earth and the earth, as is fitting, will surely return the favor.


Translated from the Spanish by Mark Schafer.

Mark Schafer is a literary translator and visual artist who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has translated Antonio José Ponte’s complete book of essays, Meaning to Eat, and some of his poetry. Schafer is currently seeking publishers for his translations of En los labio del agua (On lips of water), the second novel in Alberto Ruy Sánchez’s Mogador quarter; La escala de los mapas (The scale of maps), a novel by the Spanish author Belén Gopegui; and Migraciones (Migrations), an epic poem of memory by the Mexican poet Gloria Gervitz.

Antonio José Ponte was born in 1964 in Matanzas, Cuba. He moved to Havana in 1980, where he completed studies in hydraulic engineering at the University of Havana, and worked five years as an engineer. He left engineering to write for film, completing scripts for two full-length films and a documentary. In recent years, his award-winning books of essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Cuba, Spain, France, Mexico, and Sweden. His collection of short stories, In the Cold of the Malecón and Other Stories, was published in English by City Lights Publishers in 2000. His second collection of short stories, Stories from Around the Empire, will be published by City Lights Publishers in 2002.

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Originally published in

BOMB 78, Winter 2002

Featuring interviews with Roberto Bolaño, Laura Restrepo, Miguel Leon-Portilla, Nancy Morejon, Graciela Sacco, Tunga, and Los Carpinteros. 

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